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Danny Wallace and the difficulty with spotting a celebrity in the open

I am waiting to collect my bags from an airport carousel when I spot her again.

She seems familiar. Who is she?

I study her a little closer. She was on my flight. I first noticed her as I handed someone their bag and had to apologise for nearly getting in her way.

She spots me studying her and gives me a quick half-smile then looks away.

“It’s Dame Penelope Wilton!” I say to my mate, and he looks at her and says, “What?”

Dame Penelope Wilton! She was in Clockwise! Ever Decreasing Circles! She’s Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey!

And yet no one else seems to have noticed this yet. I feel very smug, spotting Dame Penelope Wilton in a foreign land. It is like a little secret shared between just Dame Penelope Wilton and me. The secret being: she’s Dame Penelope Wilton!

This is sure to bring us closer. As close as I got to Charles Dance that time I inadvertently followed him round a supermarket.

“I might say hello,” I consider, because the rules are different when you’re abroad, and just then, I notice Dame Penelope Wilton whip her phone from her bag and press it to her ear.

“Actually, I’ll wait,” I say, and then I think about all the different openers I could try.

Maybe I’ll say: “Hello, Penelope.”

No. Too forward.

“Hello, Dame Penelope”?

No. Too opposite-of-forward.

Dame Penelope Wilton is making a very pained face as I stare at her. She’s obviously getting some very bad news. She’s very focused on this phone call, and frowning, and every now and again glancing nervously at the carousel to check where her bags are.

“I better not disturb her,” I say to my friend. “This is obviously a trying time for Dame Penelope.”

Minutes pass. Our bags are taking ages. Dame Penelope rubs the bridge of her nose as she wanders around. She hasn’t looked at me since we exchanged our special glance. I’m sure she will again, though, and that’s when I can launch into my “Hello, Dame Penelope Wilton!” routine. Oh, she’ll love it.

But still she has her phone to her ear and a very troubled expression on her national treasure of a face.

And it is then that I start to get slightly suspicious.

“Dame Penelope Wilton has been on the phone a very long time,” I say. “And yet she has not uttered a single word.”

“What?” says my mate, which is the single word he seems capable of uttering.

“She’s not said a word. Is she trying to ring someone?”

But no. You don’t just ring and ring and ring. You hang up, start again, and do that dozens of times. Otherwise you’re a lunatic.

“Aha!” I say. “Messages! She’s obviously checking her messages.”

But the flight was only an hour long. I’m not judging, but how many messages can Dame Penelope Wilton possibly receive in an hour?

Still she wanders around, not looking my way, phone pressed hard to her ear.

And that’s when it hits me.

“She’s acting!” I say, horrified.

“What?” says my mate.

Oh my God, that deceitful woman. She is acting. Live. Right now. To an audience of one. She is pretending to be on her phone because she realises I recognised her and she doesn’t want me to go up to her and say, “Hello Penelope.”

This is worse than that time Mark Strong had his picture taken with a Lego spaceship my son built then took credit for it in the national press. What is it with the noted actors of this once-fine country?

“She’s pretending to be on the phone,” I say, outraged. “This is obviously because she saw me pass a bag to someone and now sees me as a member of the underclass. This is Downton Abbey all over again.”

My mate looks at me, as if to say, “What?”

“Dame Penelope has really committed to this role,” I think as I seethe. She has been holding a phone to her ear for absolutely no reason whatsoever for nearly half an hour. She probably thought her bags would have arrived by now, so she’s ended up in her own one-woman play.

But this is not method acting. This is not what I have come to expect from Dame Penelope Wilton at all. This is a terrible performance in an underdeveloped part. For a start, she seems to have absolutely no lines whatsoever.

And then I think about what it must be like to be Dame Penelope Wilton. To occasionally be spotted by one man after a gruelling one-hour flight. And I decide to set her free; let her fly. I will not look at Dame Penelope Wilton again. After all, I say, as our bags start to arrive, “We will always have today, and this very special, private performance.”

My mate nods. And then says, “What?”

And then I see her out by the taxis and she’s off the phone and I shout “Hello Penelope!” and I run away.



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