Do you love The West Wing? Claire did. So she moved to America!
PUBLISHED: 23:42 27 January 2019 | UPDATED: 08:04 28 January 2019
Celebrity crushes and a lunch date with Bradley 'Josh Lyman' Whitford
When Claire Handscombe was asked if she was a “wingnut” – a head-over-heels fan of TV series The West Wing – she paused to reflect. But there’s no doubt. As the ex-Suffolk schoolgirl says, “I can’t believe how much that show changed my life”.
Weigh the evidence:
* She moved to Washington DC (where the stories are set) because she so loved the series
* She shelled out a “significant amount of money” to a charity for a one-to-one lunch with actor Bradley Whitford, who played White House deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman
* Her friends got her a signed photo from Brad as a birthday gift, bearing a personalised message. (More about him soon)
* She’s become good friends with WW actress Melissa Fitzgerald, now a big cheese with a charity helping military veterans
* Claire was a driving force in organising a West Wing fans convention in Washington DC last year
* She self-published an anthology called Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives
Born-again West Winger
The 40-year-old was a relative late-comer to the joys of the American TV show. Created by Aaron Sorkin, it focused on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the fictional Bartlet presidency for seven series from the autumn of 1999 to early summer 2006.
In about 2006/2007 Claire’s friends kept exhorting her to give it a look, because she liked politics. “I didn’t watch a lot of TV because life was really busy. I taught a lot, and a lot of my work was in the evenings.”
She did sometimes watch Friends – slotting a DVD into a computer.
“I was always breaking my laptop, and borrowed my flatmate’s to watch Friends on.” There was a West Wing disk in it. “Since everyone had been telling me to watch it, I thought I’d give it a go, even though it was midway through season two.”
And what did she think at first? “Oh… there are a lot of hot guys on the show!” When someone lent Claire the first-season episodes, she was a convert. “Straightaway I knew it was an intelligent TV show.”
Claire was born in London. Her mother was (is) French, her father spoke the language, and French was what they spoke at home. They moved to Belgium when she was five and Claire went to a French-speaking school.
Following her parents’ divorce, 12-year-old Claire and her mother moved to Lowestoft – mum getting a teaching job at Elm Tree Middle School. Claire remembers thinking the seaside town very charming when she first visited, though the switch from an international school with a cosmopolitan flavour (and on the cusp of teenagerdom, too) was a bit of a culture shock.
They lived at Pakefield for a couple of years; then mum remarried and north Lowestoft became home. Claire went to The Denes High School, and to Lowestoft Community Church.
After A-levels (French, German, sociology and geography) came King’s College, Cambridge (French and Spanish). Then temporary jobs for a couple of years (medical secretary work… admin for a charity…) before carving out a niche doing language tutoring in London.
In 2009 Claire moved back to Belgium, aiming to continue tutoring and settle. When business was still a bit slow she had time to watch perhaps an episode a day on average, and think about why The West Wing exerted such a pull, “and that’s when I think I got really into it”.
“It’s very much about the idealistic side of America and what it was built on. Now, having lived here, it feels a bit different; but it intrigued me, wowed me – this notion of what the country was built on and designed to be; whereas the UK, through a succession of wars and invasions, just became what it is.
“The US was created with a specific purpose in mind and – according to people like (West Wing’s fictional and poetic deputy White House communications director) Sam Seaborn – has all these amazing values. I was intrigued and inspired.”
Inspired enough to contact an American friend and accept a longstanding offer to visit the States, having never before had the yearning. So in 2009 there was a short trip to Washington DC, the nation’s seat of federal government and exterior setting of You Know What.
Back Claire went in 2010, to do more of the touristy stuff in DC. By then, she was dreaming of moving there.
“I don’t think it was an active thought, then, that I could live there. At the same time I was reading a lot of books about the craft of writing. (In 2009 she’d started writing a first novel.)
“I had never really thought about going back to university, and certainly not going to America! But I thought, ‘If there is one in DC…’” There was. In 2012 Claire moved across the Atlantic and began a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at American University.
It wasn’t done on a whim, she stresses, and was made possible thanks to an inheritance from an uncle – with the cost of studying and living phenomenally expensive and strict rules about working on a student visa. “There was no way I could have clicked my fingers and just come.”
The West Wing trail
So: ensconced in the US, Claire had the chance to pursue some of The West Wing magic.
“I have the same zip code as Donna Moss!” she laughs. (Donna was senior assistant to Josh Lyman, and involved in a will-they-won’t-they relationship for series after series.)
There’s a West Wing scene where snowballs are thrown at Donna’s window, to attract her attention. “I found that street on one of my visits, and it’s my side of Dupont Circle (a next-door neighbourhood.) Zip codes here are broader than postcodes, so it’s not as if I’m on the other side of the street!”
And generally? “It’s 10 years since the heyday of my obsession, if we can call it that. I’m not obsessively checking the websites, but I’m friends with a lot of people who are West Wing fans.
“As I sit here, I can see a signed picture of Bradley Whitford I got for my birthday – my friends organised it for me – and I can see my West Wing box set. So I might think I don’t watch it very much any more, but you’re right: it is always there in the background.”
Last year she was heavily involved in organising a weekend convention for fans. “I’d never been so tired in my life, but it was wonderful.” Some cast members came. Composer Snuffy Walden was there too – the man who won an Emmy Award for the main title music.
“The music is stunningly good. It’s something you perhaps don’t consciously pick up on, but subconsciously it ‘does something’.”
There was Melissa Fitzgerald (Carol, assistant to press secretary CJ Cregg). Claire met her at an event in Philadelphia before she came to live in the US. Melissa’s now in DC, senior director with a non-profit organisation helping military veterans, and Claire says they’re good friends. “Very surreal!”
It was through events linked to Melissa’s work that she first met Allison Janney (CJ Cregg) and Janel Moloney (Donna Moss).
Others she’s met by waiting at the stage doors of Broadway shows – a phenomenon that “wasn’t my world at all” beforehand but which has proved fun.
“Mary-Louise Parker” – feminist campaigner and one-time Josh Lyman love interest Amy Gardner – “I saw her at the stage door for one of her shows, and then she wrote a book I really like and did a book-signing in DC.
“It’s a memoir called Dear Mr. You, which is a terrible title but is a memoir of letters to the men that have been important in her life, and it’s really well written.”
And then there’s Bradley…
The man who was Josh
“Bradley Whitford was the one I really wanted to meet. The first time was at The White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The hotel it’s held at is 10 minutes from my house and you can go into the hotel, and stand outside, and watch people come and go. I waited all night so I could get my picture with him,” Claire laughs. That was 2013.
“He spoke at Cambridge a month after that” – Cambridge, England – “and I thought ‘Well, I could visit home and see people…’
“I hadn’t been a member of the Cambridge Union (debating society) when I was at Cambridge because it was a) very expensive, and b) well, I was ‘all socialist’ – not that I’m not now – and probably thought only Conservatives went. So I went to visit home and saw him, which was great.
“It’s not a huge room, so it feels quite intimate, and he did probably an hour of questions-and-answers.
“The next year I won a charity auction to have lunch with him! Which was brilliant. Well, I sort of won the charity auction. I found out about it once it had closed and I sort of wheedled my way in. I ‘just’ had to match it. They asked him to do another one.
“It was meant to be for an hour but we were there for two hours. Just us two in a nice but normal restaurant in his home town, which is Pasadena, outside Los Angeles and a thousand times nicer than Los Angeles.
“He is a great guy. He is very smart and funny and well-read. It was really great.” Was she a bit starstruck? “I was not that together. I was quite tongue-tied.
“I basically told him at the start ‘I can’t believe I’m here with you.’ That sounds so cheesy, but it was true. I think after I said that it was easier. At first he was telling me all the stories I’m sure he tells everyone, but after that it became more of a conversation.”
Fact and fiction
Claire has her first novel coming out in April, after writing seriously for a decade. “Unscripted” is about British teacher Libby, who is obsessed with American actor Thomas Cassidy, ex-star of a school-based TV drama. So obsessed that she’s going to marry him.
Her strategy? To write a novel. The main character will be named Thom, naturally. He will read it, fall for her way with words, seek to turn it into a film, work with her on the script, and all will end happily ever after.
Er… so how much of Claire is there in Libby? (Even PR blurb for the book says Claire “knows a thing or two about celebrity crushes and the life-changing power of a television series”. And she once had the Twitter name @clairelyman.)
“Well… a little bit… More than a little bit! She is strongly inspired by me, I’d say, but she is also quite a bit younger than me – partly because no-one is going to believe that someone in their 30s has a celebrity crush!
“Also, she doesn’t have as much life experience and is a bit more starry-eyed than me. But generally speaking we’re not that different.”
Claire’s done a lot of writing: five novels (Unscripted is the first to be published), journalism, poetry, essays. Some has appeared in the Washington Post. She writes for website Book Riot and hosts the Brit Lit Podcast – a fortnightly selection-box of news and opinions on British books and publishing.
It’s difficult to know what the future holds, though. In 2017, Claire tried to get a freelance journalism career off the ground, but it’s tough to make a living. It’s lucky she has savings, she says.
Her visa status means the only work she can do is writing-related. “I can’t go and get a job in Starbucks.”
It expires in July. She’d probably be able to renew it for another three years, but doing so costs a lot in lawyers’ fees “and it might be time to come home, even though I don’t want to leave DC”.
She laughs. It’s not clear how much longer she could remain “if I don’t get some lucrative film deal from my book!”
That visa terms Claire an “alien of extraordinary ability”. What a fantastic label. I’d have a badge made with it on.
“I know; I love it too! I always meant to get a T-shirt made, but I never did.”
To qualify, people must demonstrate extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. Claire had to show she had work published and that people talk about it.
Almost the final word
Oh – what did Bradley Whitford write on that photo, if you don’t mind me asking?
“I’m not going to say it all, because it feels a little bit personal. He likes exclamation marks. So it says: ‘Claire! Happy birthday!!! Barlet 2020!!!’ And some other stuff.”
Unscripted is due out on April 4, from crowdfunding publisher Unbound. Amazon is showing a paperback price of £10.99
Favourite West Wing character
I’m sure there are no prizes for guessing, but…
“My favourite thing on the show is the dynamic between Josh and Donna. I love how understated it is, and the tension, and how long it takes for anything to happen. The quick and witty banter is amazing, and so much is shown in just the occasional look.”
The one that made Claire fall in love with the show was the opening season’s fifth.
Josh is among those given a card from the National Security Council, telling him where to go if there’s a nuclear attack – that is, he’s one of the key staff due to be protected.
When he realises his friends and colleagues don’t have places in the shelter, he becomes wracked with guilt and gives up the card.
“He goes to see a therapist” – Josh’s older sister was killed in a housefire while babysitting him, and that’s hard to live with – “and you get an insight into how broken and damaged he is. It gave him depth. His sister died and he blames himself for that.”
From season one’s pre-Christmas episode In Excelsis Deo. “The scene I’ve watched a million times is the one where Josh gives Donna a book as a Christmas present. He’s written an inscription we never see – which is wonderful. The West Wing is great in understating things.
“Plus, In the Shadow of Two Gunmen I and II you find out characters’ back stories.”
“It does feel different. I don’t know how much of that is in my own head. People who live in DC are overwhelmingly liberal, and Democrat voters. Most people here are a bit sad and that does impact on the feel of the place.”
Good things about America
* Claire loves its vastness and variety. “At one point I was flying to California fairly regularly and you fly over some beautiful landscape.”
She went on a long train journey from Seattle to San Diego, too: 36 hours. “Thick forest in the north and beautiful beaches in the south.”
* People are generally more politically engaged in America than the UK, she feels.
* Lots of different food! “DC is quite a foodie city.” Loves cornbread and sweet potato fries.
* A literary scene that’s vibrant and thriving – “and not just white men: writers of colour, and women”.
Not so good things about America
“Obviously healthcare here is a disaster. You go to a doctor and, even with Obamacare, they give you a range of options, and you have to figure out how much your insurance is going to cover the cost. I think that’s an insane way of running a health system.”
Her insurance policy is about $400 a month. Not the cheapest, but the cheapest covered being ill just in DC!
* Claire says people in America work really hard and wear it as a badge of honour. She thinks employees should have more time off and longer holidays. It’s not healthy to work so much.