Sunday, 22 July 2012

Fangirly Special: Meeting Ben Miller!

Now as some of you will know, the actor, comedian, musician and writer Ben Miller was once a fledgling graduate physicist, studying Coulomb blockades and quantum dots at St Catherine's College, Cambridge. During this time, he had to make a tough decision which would would change his life, and that was to leave the esteemed Cavendish Laboratories for the uncertain bright lights of comedy.

Nearly 20 years later he's written a book about his passion. Not yer usual 'sleb' tome, but that of a person who has never lost his love of science, being always keen to follow the discoveries and mysteries of the scientific world. The book is called 'It's Not Rocket Science' and looks at the bigger topics such as climate change, astronomy, Higgs Bosons etc. He seeks to explain concepts and ideas that most of us not blessed with a scientific and academic brain, would very likely avoid out of the idea it would be boring and too hard to understand.

I love what I have read so far, although having to do so slowly while really, really wishing that there was someone like Ben around when I was younger, to inspire and encourage me on further to achieve my dream of studying the oceans. That passion and enthusiasm came across very much during his interview and talk at the Royal Institute last night (19.7.2012 7pm - 8.30pm). This was to launch his book, the aim of which is to introduce the curious at the amateur level to the joy of science (I think that was a working title in the beginning!), to make it accessible. I agree with him when he says that science SHOULD be accessible to all. For example, it's not a good thing to stream children either to arts/humanities or science only, at such a young age and have the potential to enjoy both at any level denied them.

Reading about the Sagittarius A star black hole in the centre of our galaxy, or climate change has to be digested slowly, but is an eye opener for the likes of me, who could only fantasize about science without really being able to feel a part of it so to speak. Feeling a bit like the child who would be forced to watch a feast from a distance, but not be encouraged to be a part of because of my unworthy lack of scientific intelligence. What Ben has done is to open up that wonder again, not by handing science on a plate so to speak, but to encourage you on the journey where although sometimes a concept can seem too big (or small in the case of quantum mechanics) to grasp, he does demonstrate that if you have the admiration and desire to learn even only at the most basic level, you can and do have the intelligence to work things through and take delight in that.

Ben does this by a fantastic teaching method using humorous comparisons and analogies and I seriously think does a better job of it than Prof. Brian Cox! Anyway, rather than my continuing to gush about the book, why not go out and buy it for yourself. £12.99 for the paperback version and about £16.99 as a download via Audible, but you'll need their player. It'll be worth it!

What I found with Ben Miller is delightful! I had known about his role as James Lester in 'Primeval' and his being a comedy partner of Alexander Armstrong, who currently presents 'Pointless' on the BBC. I vaguely remember Ben's dyed blond hair when he was younger, although I must confess I prefer his natural brown locks. But in all, Ben has a great range of talents, including being also a musician, but we don't get to see that side of him as much, which is sad.

He's played everything so far from a being a comedian, to a scientist, pen pushing civil servant, psychotic National Trust ranger, evil wife killing doctor, a gay actor amongst many roles, and more recently a displaced disgruntled detective who is finding he does have a heart after all. He even produced and directed his first feature film, 'Huge' in 2009 and has directed and written for television in the past. He can be both funny and poignant on screen and his range no doubt, hasn't reached it's limits yet. All to be discovered I guess as time goes on. But what is very apparent is that he is an openly generous, friendly, enthusiastic, sensitive soul who appears to take great delight in new challenges and the world around him.

Anyway, I decided some time ago to make the effort to see Ben in person, as the best measure of a talent is to see them live. I have done this with actors Geraint Wyn Davies and William Gaunt, having seen both on stage and meeting them afterwards. Both of those gents were generous with their time and very sweet, one almost on 'friends' terms and hoping to meet up when I get the chance to head back over to Ontario. I think most actors are polite and enthusiastic, especially if you make an effort to thank them for their work. I had been too ill over the winter to see Ben in 'Ladykillers', so when I found out he would be giving a talk at the Royal Institute in London, I leaped at the chance to go.

I need to explain that now I have a huge amount of spare time on my hands, I have also become addicted to Twitter and on there have met some great gals, who are fans of Ben and we have given ourselves the hash tag of #BensBabes! I became all 'fangirly' about his work after I had 'clicked' with his character DI Richard Poole in Robert Thorogood's 'Death in Paradise' shown on BBC 1 in October of 2011.  When an actor and their character 'click' with me, I get obsessed and research that person's previous work as far as possible to get a broader view of their talent, and I will confess also to sate my 'fangirly' thrill!

After a twitter session, one of us came up with the idea that if any of us should catch up with him, we should give him a gift as an appreciation and a 'thank you' from all of us for his work. So decided on a recipe book, as it is rumoured that Ben is quite the cook, although he would tell you differently. After much emailing, suggestions, trawling the internet as well as some of our own recipes, I got to work on compiling the booklet so one of us could hand it over to Ben, should one of us be lucky enough to meet him in person. So the RI talk was the perfect opportunity to do this.

I had arranged to meet up another 'BensBabe' called Claire for the day. I was supposed to have another friend with me but sadly she became ill at the last minute and could not attend. Claire is great company and was a reassuring companion in case Algy kicked off, which he nearly did once or twice! We met up, had lunch  at the RI (I'm bloody well BUYING lunch next time Claire!) and had an initial look round the Faraday Museum, including the hilarious Periodic Table display, the idea of which is to hit the lighted elements, in time to an adaption of the Gilbert and Sullivan song 'Modern Major General', from of all things, 'The Pirates of Penzance' (I knew Cornwall would have to come in to this somewhere!)! However the music was using all of the periodic table as lyrics. I had heard this some time ago when we had the surviving members of the 'Bonzo Dog Doodah Band' - sans Neil Innes - play at a theatre in Penzance, that I am a trustee of*. It was great fun and we decided to come back later for more!

After that, Claire and I spent a little time wandering around the streets staring at and discussing the hugely expensive bling on offer in the shop windows. It was fun comparing said bling (some as cheap as £30k!) with our tastes. Most were lovely but the others a little too 'Katie Price' in design. But you would agree that a hair dresser and a knackered retired RGN would not be buying *any* of the bling soon! Mind you, if our other halves win the lottery, that would be a different matter altogether! Still we were brave enough to have a wander around Tiffany's as well, which was nice, but not nearly as big as their New York parent shop, from which I had purchased a present for my parents when they moved home some years before.

We returned to the RI, biding our time again by playing with the Periodic table and having a fit of the giggles, before returning upstairs to await curtain up, so to speak!

Right, on to the event itself before I lose the details.

The interior of the lecture hall  has been refurbished. Gone are the wooden seats of my youth, and in their place are plush theatre type seats. The stairs though are as steep as ever! I had asked if it would be ok to go in ahead of time as I couldn't guarantee I could get up the steps so well. That was ok but the crowds came up early so we had to get in to the head of the queue quickly. We were able to get in the first row to the left of the staging area, tucking ourselves in the end of the row by an exit. I got comfortable and rummaged about with bags, sticks and what have you, securing them, or so I thought!

 A brief introduction was give by the fabulously calm Olympia Brown, RI person who was Ben's assistant for the day, including helping him during an appearance on 'This Morning' earlier, where presenter Eamon Holmes was delivered of 50k volts, through a Van De Graff generator as part of some experiments Ben was showing at the time! With Ben was journalist Roger Highfield who would be 'interviewing' Ben as well as helping him keep on track.

Ben talked about his early days, from being extremely lucky to have a maths teacher who knew how to fire the enthusiasm of his pupils (something I never had. Lower stream idiots like me were often told to 'go away'.) which carried on throughout Ben's educational years. I think Ben tends to play down his abilities a bit because I know one usually cannot get anywhere NEAR a Cambridge college unless bordering on being gifted. His family were of great influence as well, encouraging a mix of arts and science appreciation through Ben's formative years. I think I am correct in saying Ben is the oldest of 3 children, with two younger sisters. Although raised in Nantwich, Cheshire, Ben was actually born at St. Bart's in London. Hell Ben, you might have even been delivered by one of my Midwifery tutors who would have been there at the time! :D

The only sad bit that did bring a lump to my throat was Ben telling the audience that his father had died the year before. One could only imagine what that must have been like for him, since it is well known Ben has been through some huge personal changes in his life over the previous couple of years, including having to work away from home for 6 months filming 'Death in Paradise' in Guadeloupe through 2011, and then with the birth of his youngest son in December 2011. I think my heart went out to all of them at that point.

It seems Ben's passion for science has never left him and he comes across as the sort of person who is interested in EVERYTHING! Despite the humour and hilarity, there were some serious points made, such as always trying to find the truth about what is happening in the world, that climate change IS something to be concerned about, plus the streaming of children between science and the arts as mentioned before, rather than blending the two disciplines, the fact science should be and is accessible to everyone. But I do have to point out that in my personal experience, I have found some of the scientific community to be as elitist as their arts/humanities counterparts, having been *very* much subjected to that kind of prejudice from both areas in the past.

I had wanted to be a Marine Biologist as a child and teen, but feel I was written off the maths approach too early by bad teaching which basically shut off the sciences to me. At the time, unless *really* smart, the assumption was that the only science little girls should be studying was 'domestic science'. I have never been really able to catch up with maths since, except when I went into nursing, two years as an 'auxiliary' then on to my training qualifying three years later as a 'Registered General Nurse' back in 1984, where I relearned arithmetic and calculus to a limited degree. Then again many years later while studying for a DipHE in Health Studies. I did that so I could bring myself up to speed with student nurse education at the time and graduated happily from the University of Plymouth back in 2006.

A DipHE might not sound much to anyone who has studied for and obtained a degree, but for someone like me who was basically written off as being 'thick' or not worth the educational effort at aged 6 onwards, it means so much as I had to find and fight my own way educationally in to nursing (after several resits to get the required 5 'O' levels, grade C or above at the time. I wasn't going to give up!) and then on in to adult education afterwards throughout my career, eventually becoming a clinical teacher, workshop leader for stress management, an NHS basic life support trainer and NVQ level 3 assessor in my own right. I hope I have always been encouraging to my students because unlike our dear Ben, I didn't get the support I felt I needed during my formative years. I know the bitter blow to one's self esteem and enthusiasm that can happen, after being told to 'try harder' and 'must be more confident', yet there was little encouragement from those around me to do so.

That was to be my pathway to a BSc in Nursing too, but sadly events overtook me health wise, so I never got the chance to finish the BSc. Ben gave up his Post grad studies because he felt he would not be able to 'lead' in anything, only be a follower. I have to disagree but then I do know what it is like when you have to wake up to the fact that your first love and ambition may not be your last, so to speak. However, I still find it a little sad that Ben felt he could not stay the course and get his doctorate, for all of his success and wonderful talent as an entertainer since then.

Getting back to the RI. It was a wonderful event, even if half way through it, jumping out of my skin and being mortified at the loud clatter of my stick slipping through the front panels we were sat behind, and landing on the floor followed by a SD card falling out of my handbag at the same time, which nearly caused me to have a seizure with poor Claire beside me having to stifle her hysterics! Despite that, Ben finished the session by that wonderful experiment of adding potassium iodide to hydrogen peroxide and causing a fountain of foamy mess! There followed a brief Q&A session afterwards which brought the session to a close. Then came the long, loud appreciative applause, well deserved in my opinion! After which all departed in to the reception area to queue to buy a copy of 'It's Not Rocket Science' and for autographs.

Ben had remained in the lecture theatre to chat to those around him for a bit. Claire and I joined in quietly as I thought that would be a better moment to quickly hand over our booklet of Caribbean based recipes to him. But I don't proof read so well, and will apologise for the numerous typos, inconsistencies in the thing, and discovering to my horror an hour or so before the event, that not all the pages are fully secured in to the comb bind! Never mind. Ben was really surprised and very pleased with his gift. Claire and I were delighted but happened next I did NOT expect! I had turned away to make our exit, when a Ben Miller shaped arm shot around my shoulders and two kisses were planted in quick succession on my left cheek! Wow! That totally threw me in a lovely way! I'll never wash my left cheek ever again! :D

I had blurted out, "did you get a picture of that!" but but poor Claire had frozen to the spot! Needless to say we were both in shock. but very, very happy that Ben liked our recipe book. I did recommend Chapter Two, the one with the cocktail recipes, plus since then Ben has stated he would be taking the booklet with him on his return to Guadeloupe, so there *might* be a bit of a party going on, who knows? Eventually it was time to move, so we went out and joined a *very* long queue of nearly everyone who attended wanting to buy the book and to have Ben's autograph. Luckily for us, a separate queue was formed for those only needing autographs. Since Claire and I had bought our copies of INRS in advance we quickly changed lanes so to speak! I asked her to take one of the four books I had on me as three other people wanted copies signing. That way the spoils could be divided up so as not to hog the man too much.

Ben graciously received us, Claire went first and we got a lovely picture of the two together. Ben then received a pile of books from me to sign (He's a very patient man!) and we briefly chatted again. He asked if Claire and I had known each other before Twitter, which we hadn't. He was also impressed I think, I had traveled up from Penzance to see him. Normally I can get a train from there to London in under 5 hours, but the route has changed so it took ages the day before. I have done the journey so often, it doesn't seem that long, however as I said to him, it took longer to come up from Penzance the evening before than it has taken me to fly to New York from Heathrow on occasions! But what I SHOULD have also said (sorry Ben!) was to point out that he had traveled much further only 48 hours or so before from Guadeloupe, via France. So you have my admiration for that, Mr Miller.

After this, Claire and I floated out of the reception area, down to the bar for a drink and a chat before we went our separate ways. It was a fantastic day and well worth every inch and minute of the journey! I have now had the privilege to meet two wonderfully kind, patient and openly generous people, one of which I hope will become a lifelong friend and the other of whom I will always admire, and hope to see in person again one day.

Thank you Clare, and THANK YOU Ben!

For my #BensBabes,

Heather a.ka. @Braintumourlady. XXXXXXX

Ben being a 'proper job' scientist!

 Going through the book.

 Ben with his copy of my (somewhat hastily) produced 'D.I.P' themed
recipe book on behalf of the #BensBabes at

 My smile is much better than that! I was probably mumbling at
the time! Ben and misself after the talk.

With partner in crime and fellow #BensBabe, Claire. 
Lovely woman!

 *The Ritz Arts Community Centre Charitable Trust - It's an old 1936 art deco cimena which became a bingo hall until closed in 2005. Five of us have taken on the HUGE onerous task of cleaning up the place so it can be used as an arts and community centre and to be restored to its former glory, hopefully, as well. However, there is the slight matter of finding £300,000 to buy the bloody thing and then get a fund going for major structural restoration work! So if anyone out there who wants to help out.....*begs*!

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