Animals and Dick Madeley hold an uneasy truce, born out of years of conflict, often bloody, and usually resulting in me with underpants to ankles and a tetanus shot stuck in my behind. It’s the principal reason why I rarely talk about Judy’s passion for Shetland ponies, despite her being, in the sad and often disturbed circles that rate such things, one of the nation’s top show breeders. She has won awards for her miniature horses that surpass her many achievements in television. I think I’m even safe in saying that only George Lucas has done more to further the cause of midgets worldwide.
Yet as much as I avoid having anything to do with them, there are certain times when I can only bite my lip, give a snort, and become a bit horsey. Yesterday was one such day. The annual Richard&Judy Horse of the Year Show is organised by Judy’s stables and held at a large converted aerodrome in Norfolk. Unlike that other horse festival with a similar title, our show celebrates the country’s equestrians in the only way that’s right and proper: by attracting the country’s top celebrities and getting them drunk before sunset.
This year was a special year because it was the tenth show and Judy was going to be showing Raymond and Percy, her two prize Shetland ponies. Now, running around a ring leading a midget horse is not something I normally look forward to, but this year there were a few compensations. For one, Jeremy Clarkson was going to be on hand with his donkey. He’d promised to bring old Flossy along for the children to ride for a pound a go, with all proceeds going to his Donkey Sanctuary and Meat Processing Charity / Investment Opportunity. The other reason for my optimism was the fact that we’d persuaded Stephen Fry to be our master of ceremonies. This had been one of my better ideas and I knew things would go well once I heard the familiar voice echoing around the show ring.
‘Ah, ’tis I, Fry, on the Tannoy, welcoming you all the twenty second Richard&Judy Horse of the Year Show. Indeed. Were I to say what kind of show we have for you today, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I would be doing you all a great disservice. For I simply cannot anticipate the soft warm bundles of frilly goodness you’ll see here today. My! I can merely ask you all to put your hands together, if they are not already thus, and welcome out our first act: Ms. Sandi Toksvig and her celebration of the beauty of bareback!’
The audience cheered and we were away with a the usual display of bareback riding that Sandi does each year to open the show. I’ve seen it all before so I made my way backstage where I found Judy, that paragon of professionalism, demonstrating why she’s often called the Queen of the Midget Mounts.
‘Get that ****ing comb and ****ing-well brush it a-****ing-gain!’ she screamed at one of the young grooms. ‘I want that tail ****ing silky. ****ing silky!’
I decided to walk right through the paddock – as I believe it’s called – and head off to see how all the other celebrity acts were getting on with their preparations. Or I would have if I hasn’t spotted Clarkson smoking his pipe at one of the side doors. He was admiring some big bunkers on the other side of the old runway.
‘Do you ever stop to consider the engineering that goes into something like that?’ he asked. ‘Staggering. Simply staggering.’ He used the end of his pipe to point out a detail. ‘That concrete must be twelve feet thick. They were probably once home to battlefield nukes.’
‘Strong stuff,’ I agreed. ‘That would even protect you against a blast from a battle hardened Cilla Black.’
‘She’s not here is she?’ asked Jeremy. With hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned Cilla’s name. Jeremy was clearly still worried about that drunken argument they’d had at our Christmas party. I know for a fact that she’s still very upset that Jeremy considers ELO superior to the Beatles.
‘I’m afraid she couldn’t make it,’ I said, to reassure him.
‘Couldn’t she? Oh damn,’ he said, returning to his pipe. ‘Perhaps that explains the good turn out.’
‘No, that’s just the Lily Allen effect,’ I explained. ‘She’s brought her publicity machine with her. We have half of London’s PR staff out in the crowd. I don’t know what sounds louder: the applause for Toksvig on an Arabian or the sound of fingers on blackberries.’
Jeremy puffed away, seemingly quite content gazing across at the hardened bunkers.
‘How are the donkey rides going?’ I asked to shake him from his dreams of low yield battlefield nukes.
‘All sold out,’ he said. ‘I’ve done so well that I’ve now got the rest of the day to myself.’
‘How on earth can you sell out a day’s donkey’s rides?’
He winked. ‘That’s where you lack my genius. You might have noticed that there is now a donkey walking around backstage, carrying a crate of babycham and enough cheese nibbles to feed Cambodia. I strapped a tray to Flossy’s back and hired her out to Christopher Biggins for the day.’
A roar from the audience suggested that Toksvig’s bareback routine had finally come to an end. ‘Sounds like we’re up next,’ I said as I heard Fry announce a moment’s break. ‘Midget horses next,’ I said, unable to restrain a groan.
‘I don’t think they’re technically called midget horses,’ said Jeremy, who can be politically correct when it suits him. ‘The correct term is midget ponies.’
‘Well whatever they are, I’m up next. Are you coming to watch?’
He tapped out his pipe on his heel before he tucked it into his pocket. ‘It should be good for a laugh,’ he said.
We reached the edge of the ring in time to find Judy pacing nervously around. She has such a passion for the midget ponies that even her husband has to tread cautiously when he’s around her. Actually, that’s not a bad bit of advice. It’s all too easy to step on one of the bloody things and mess up your heels with blood and flaxen mane.
‘Where have you been?’ she snapped.
‘Admiring twelve feet of concrete on some Cilla-proof bunkers,’ said Jeremy; a touch foolhardy, I thought.
Judy’s face darkened, as it always does when Jeremy mocks one of her closest friends.
‘Don’t worry, I’m here now,’ I said to calm her. ‘Which one of these do you want me to take. Pinky or Perky?’
‘As well you know, Richard, they’re called Raymond and Percy. You can take Percy. He’s slightly lest skittish.’
‘I can’t see why we couldn’t hire midgets to ride these things around the ring,’ I said as I took the reigns to the little trotter. I felt mildly foolish with Jeremy watching me, his face big with a drayhorse grin.
There was a brief cough over the Tannoy before Stephen’s voice shushed the crowd.
‘Ah, shush,’ said he, ‘for, now, indeed, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I’m delighted to welcome to the ring, the couple of the hour… Were I am man given to long and rambling introductions, I would say that we feel the deepest love and affection for the people who made this event possible. Luckily, I’m not a man given to long and rambling introductions, so I will simply say, with no little humility and a touch of love that one might call “squishy”, that it does our hearts proud to welcome into the ring, Richard and Judy and their simply stunning Shetland ponies.’
To the March of the Bumblebee, we ran out into the ring. I was following Judy every step of the way as she bounced along with Raymond beside her. Percy was pretty indifferent to the whole thing, as was I, and we were soon losing a little distance from the lead.
‘Keep up,’ shouted Judy as she ran out ahead, waving to the crowd.
‘That’s easy for you to say,’ I called back, having managed to get the reigns wrapped around Percy’s throat. From a distance, I imagine it looked like I wasn’t leading him as much as trying to strangle the life out of him.
I was thankful that after a single circuit of the ring, we stopped in the middle. I say this but I guess I wasn’t as thankful as little Percy who I’d had to drag around for the last few feet.
‘What do we do now?’ I gasped, though, again, not as much as little Percy who was sucking in plenty of air now he had the chance.
‘Oh, Richard, you know exactly what’s next. It was on the piece of paper I gave you. We stand here while the girls perform.’
I didn’t want to say that I hadn’t bothered with piece of paper. Never do. I ad lib my life and this was going to be no exception.
A fanfare heralded ‘the girls’ into the ring. In a synchronised canter, out came Jordan, Jodi Marsh, Jade Goody and Kerry Katona, all bouncing high and happily on their four mounts.
‘Apocalyse!’ I cried, unable to restrain myself.
‘What?’ asked Judy, holding Raymond’s reigns. The two midgets had become uneasy and were pulling at their restraints, as, indeed, was I.
‘Apocalypse!’ I cried again. ‘It’s the four riders. This is the end, Judy! Judgement day. And I’ve not had chance to do enough good in the world.’
‘Oh Richard, behave,’ she said, while maintaining her grin for the crowd.
The next few minutes were a nightmare to me. The four riders from the Book of Revelation circled me, their devilish orange faces shining in the spotlights. And lo, I looked, and beheld, an ashen horse; and she who sat on it had the name Jade; and Kerry Katona rode behind her. The number of the breasts was eight and hell followed with them.
‘They’ll end up with heavily bruised chins if this goes on for much longer,’ I said to Judy.
‘I’m warning you Richard. Cut it out.’
But I couldn’t. Round and round they bounced, cantered, twirled, and, indeed, bounced again. Just as I thought it couldn’t go on much longer, they wheeled around and trotted slowly towards us and the crowd rose in applause as their four mounts gracefully kneeled down and bowed to Judy, Raymond, Percy, and me.
‘That was really, really moving,’ said Clarkson, wiping tears from his eyes as I came off the ring and out of the spotlights. ‘That was really quite something. Never have I seen a man get on his knees and pray with such conviction. Did you really mean it when you asked God to take Judy first?’
‘Shut it Clarkson,’ I warned. ‘I’m in no mood to be mocked.’
‘Mock? I wouldn’t dare. I’d have paid good money to see that.’
I strode out to the back.
‘Where are you going?’ he shouted after me.
‘To find twelve feet of blast proof concrete. I have some things to say I think it better the world didn’t hear.’