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Swapping a bike and brown ale for a polo pony and champagne

Daily Telegraph, January 24,2004

Channel 4's Faking It returns for a new series next month. Mark Palmer talks to one of its reluctant stars

Malcolm Woodcock (known to one and all as "Woody") is a hero to aspiring social climbers everywhere. Last summer, while working as a bicycle messenger in Manchester, his boss telephoned to say that a production company hired by Channel 4 wished to interview him for a role in the new series of Faking It, which has in the past transformed a naval officer into a drag queen, an insurance salesman into a stuntman and a cellist into a DJ.
Fluking it: from bike courier to polo player, Malcolm Wood learnt how to become 'more genteel'

The task was clear: Woody would spend 28 days at Prince Charles's local polo club in Gloucestershire, training to become a professional-standard player. At the end of this, he would take part in a tournament watched by a panel of experts who would judge his performance and decide whether or not he was the real thing.

But there were one or two obstacles to overcome. First, he had never ridden a horse. Second, he had never watched polo. Third, he did not exactly fit the profile of an up-and-coming polo player about to spend winters in Argentina and summers in Windsor Great Park.

When selected for the programme, Woody had a ponytail sprouting from his otherwise shaven head and sported 13 tattoos. He wore a ring in his left nostril and several studs and spikes in his ears. He painted his nails black and never went anywhere without his gothic eyeliner. His clothes reflected an interest in what he calls "sleazy rock and death metal".

Five months later - after successfully bamboozling the judges and hobnobbing with the William-and-Harry set - Woody is back in Manchester, delivering parcels, and the studs, spikes and eyeliner have all been restored. Nothing much has changed, but everything is a little different.

"I realised that the people I was hanging out with at the polo club were exactly the same as me - except they had money," says Woody, 30. "I go down the pub and drink Newcastle Brown, and they go to the polo lounge and drink champagne. They want to have fun and dance on tables like me; but, in the morning, they get up and ride a horse while I get up and ride a bike.

"I've always believed in taking people as you find them. We didn't have too much in common but you change according to the people you're with, and I definitely became more genteel."

Woody was born in Middlesbrough, where his father was a fitter for British Rail. He has lived in Manchester for almost 10 years and says that working nine hours a day as a courier is more of a hobby than a job. He claims to be "lazy" and "stubborn", but you only have to watch the programme to realise that he can also be determined and single-minded.

"I know now that if I put my mind to something, I can do it. I just didn't want to fail."

During his stay at the Beaufort Polo Club, just outside Tetbury, Woody shared a house with Caspar West, 28, the club's senior coach and a part-time professional player. On arrival, he was given a haircut and manicure. The rings and studs were removed and he was taken to buy clothes at Hackett. When he met a horse for the first time, Woody looked nervous. At one point, West was so dispirited, he thought of giving up on him.

"I told him that this wasn't a holiday and that he should make more effort," says West. "This was after he went out for a drink and came back at 3am, completely out of his head. But we gave him a serious wake-up call and it seemed to change his attitude."


Woody was given a day of etiquette training at Cliveden Hotel, in Berkshire, where Drusilla Beyfus, author of Modern Manners, gave him a few pointers before he had dinner with members of the polo club.

"He was very determined and seemed almost over-confident," says Beyfus. "I am still astonished he managed to persuade the judges that he was the genuine article. I can only think that it was due to my amazing tutoring."

Woody thinks it was more a matter of common sense. "Drusilla was very nice but I'm not sure what I learnt. At one point, I sat down at a table and there were masses of knives and forks on either side of the mat. She asked me how I would decide which to pick up first and I told her I'd start from the outside and work inwards. I was right."

When the day of the tournament arrived, Woody was in a panic. To make matters worse, he was having problems with his horse, a pony called Lusmata. "I hated her. She was horrible to me but was meant to be a safe horse. The biggest problem was getting her to turn right. I thought the judges would realise I was a fraud within 30 seconds but it was a good day.

I even scored a goal and then I didn't want the game to end."

But the game did end - and so, too, did Woody's gallop into the fast lane of the polo world. Since returning home, he has hired polo books and videos from his local library, and has contemplated getting in touch with the Cheshire Polo Club - but nothing has come of it.

"I had a dream about riding a horse down Deansgate in Manchester, and would love to play if someone gave me a chance," he says. "But it's a rich person's sport and I've settled back into my old ways. It's no good pretending you're someone else. I can hardly afford to keep myself, let alone a horse."

The new series of Faking It begins on Channel 4 on February 3


 


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