The year was 1999. I had been teaching for ten years. I had been married to Richard for eight. For the first time we had enough money to visit my family in California. Off we flew. Richard's very first trip to the USA.
We fly to LA. My brother Dan picks us up from LAX. We have dinner with him and his lovely wife Meredith in a TexMex place somewhere up high and watch the sun set over the beach where Nic Cage and his angels stand and where the Baywatch people run in slo-mo. That's where my brother and Meredith lived. Santa Monica. Where Route 66 hits the sea at Pacific Palisades. If you have to live in LA, Santa Monica is the place to live. You can reach everything on foot and it’s by Venice Beach and the boardwalk and it has the palm-lined streets and those little pastel houses that are all the best bits of LA.
The next morning my brother has to go to work. But Meredith says she’ll give us the LA tour. Bless her. She drives us through Beverley Hills and Bel Air. Then we drive to the UCLA campus.
Meredith: 'It's pretty. Also, we can get out and walk.’
Me: 'Walk? In L.A.? Cool.'
Richard (doing his Woody Allen impersonation): 'I can walk to the curb from here.'
Meredith: ‘Oh, look at the big catering trucks. They must be filming something here. Let’s go see.’
Sure enough, down by the student union we see cranes and cameras and people with clipboards.
‘What are they filming?’ asks Meredith, a native Los Angelean.
Random undergraduate: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Season Four. Opening episode.’
Me: 'I've heard of that. Simon watches it.'
(Simon is my son. Ten years ago he was a teenager, old enough to be left at home with the cat and an air-pistol.)
We stand around for a while watching them set up the shot. It is July. It is hot. I am wearing a pale pink silk blouse over black leggings. Richard has a green silk shirt and a straw hat. Meredith wears cream linen.
Random undergraduate: 'There she goes. There's Sarah Michelle Gellar.'
Meredith: 'She's so short. Smaller than you'd expect.'
A gum-chomping girl with a clipboard comes up to us: ‘Want to be extras?’ she chomps.
We look at each other. ‘Sure,’ we shrug.
‘OK,’ chomps the girl. ‘You three stand over here by these three girls and when the director says "ACTION" act really jazzed to see each other. Like you’re friends who haven’t seen each other all summer. *chomp, chomp* Oh, and don’t look at the camera.’
We do as ordered. A couple of times. We act jazzed. We don’t look at the camera up on its crane. We do it with 'more energy'. We do it with 'less energy'.
‘Imagine,’ I say to Richard that evening. ‘Your first trip to America. You haven’t been in the country a day and already you’re in the movies.’
A week later we leave lovely Santa Monica to go visit my parents and my sister up north in the San Francisco Bay Area. That was the week my sister suggested I ‘write a book for kids, set in Pompeii.’ My ‘light-bulb’ moment.
Back in London, I write the first draft of The Thieves of Ostia over the last two weeks of the summer holidays.
A few months later, we watch Buffy Season Four opening episode, just to see ourselves. You can easily see me with my fluffy hair and pink shirt and black leggings with my back to the camera next to Richard in his hat. Turns out they used that high crane establishing shot for some classic episodes. So Meredith, Richard and I are in The Freshman, Hush and Pangs.
And that was how we discovered the best TV series in the history of the universe. When people ask me which four famous people living or dead I’d like to have lunch with, I always say Jesus Christ, Mary Renault, Mark Twain and Joss Whedon. Joss is a genius.
Bless Joss. Bless Buffy. Bless Meredith. Bless LA. Bless the summer of 99!
P.S. Forgot to mention that I met Anthony ('Giles') Head last year while he was filming outside our riverside flat here in London!