When I met Sacha Baron Cohen

The comedian was up to his tricks back in 1997, before he was famous for Borat, Ali G and now The Dictator.

Sacha Baron Cohen as his character in The Dictator.
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There he was, sitting to my right in the dimly lit television studio in London. I could feel the nerves begin to build as the spotlight shone in my direction. The camera was rolling.

It was 1997 and the host was a little-known comedian named Sacha Baron Cohen, who went on to embody characters including Borat, Ali G and Bruno and, most recently, write, direct and star in the feature film The Dicator. These were early days, though, and no one really knew Baron Cohen. He began to ask questions about my childhood, focusing particularly on my awkward nursery school days in Brighton, located an hour south of London, along the British coast.

Suddenly, my A-Level media studies classmates, who made up the live audience of the youth programme F2F (Face to Face), began to giggle.

Baron Cohen was already up to tricks the world was yet to see: my classmates were giggling because as I sat on his hot seat, photos of me around the ages of five and six were being projected on to a large screen behind us.

The programme's producers had visited my house during the week and persuaded my family to break open the old family photo album. Baron Cohen shot questions at me as I tried to keep up. I couldn't, and anything I attempted to deny was refuted by the series of photos, each a more embarrassing testament to my teenage years than the last.

I learnt first-hand what so many others – a host of celebrities including David Beckham and Posh Spice – would find out the hard way, in front of a much larger audience: the man cannot be outsmarted.

A few years later, when the celebrity couple appeared as guests on Da Ali G Show, I knew I had been lucky to get away with experiencing just a fraction of what they had to endure. A picture of the footballer wearing a sarong had flashed on to the screen and, of course, Baron Cohen could not resist calling red-faced Becks on it.

"Yeah, I know it's 'so wrong' but what's it called?" he joked.

Baron Cohen's show on the Granada Talk TV channel ran from 1996 to 1997 and launched his career. It was also the platform on which he introduced his massively successful alter egos Ali G and Borat. My classmates and I spent a week working on it, which is why I was there, as part of our media studies class. While there I could see the beginnings of Baron Cohen's Ali G character, an interviewer based on the stereotypical hip-hop artist, who first appeared on F2F and then more prominently in 1998 as part of Channel 4's The 11 O'Clock Show and in 2000 on Da Ali G Show. Borat, a fictitious Kazakhstani journalist, also first surfaced during F2F, and later became the main subject of the 2006 mockumentary, for which Baron Cohen won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Continuing on the path of over-the-top fictitious characters, Baron Cohen then introduced Bruno, a fashion journalist in the 2009 mockumentary, to mixed reviews.

I still have the videotape of the F2F show, buried deep in a box somewhere. At the time, I had also been part of a student production of the musical Poppy by the English writer Peter Nichols for my theatre studies class. I played the role of Dick Whittington, the lord mayor of London during the 14th century. Baron Cohen, of course, with his men on the inside, came to know I had taken a particular liking to one of the songs, The Blessed Trinity – Civilisation, Commerce and Christianity. I have no idea what possessed me to agree, but somehow he made me sing it. I think even Baron Cohen was surprised.

  • The Dictator is in cinemas in the US. No release date has been set for the UAE