Party leader;After class;Interview;Tom Skehan;Features amp; Arts
It is 5pm, and I have a problem. Birmingham New Street station is filling up fast, and I am supposed to be meeting a Tony Blair lookalike. But which one? As I scan the ranks of commuters for likely candidates, I begin to see the Prime Minister's features in every face. This is my man, perhaps. He's older than I expected - and shorter. But from a distance, after a couple of drinks... I cross my victim's line of vision, holding up the turquoise bag by which he is supposed to recognise me. But his eyes are fixed on the shimmering departures board. This man is not Tom Skehan.
I grow more anxious. What if the real Tom is standing next to me and I fail to spot him because he looks nothing like Blair? He'd feel foolish. And I would feel like... "David!" He approaches with his hand out. And, as I shake it, I half expect to be dazzled by flashguns, so startling is the likeness. The hair is a little low on the forehead and the face is that of a 35-year-old (Tony is 46), unworn by the burdens of office. But that's because Tom is being himself. No make-up; no red rose.
He has come straight from the classroom. "I switched to supply teaching once this Blair thing took off," he explains as we settle down to a lager in the sort of pub where even the real Prime Minister might easily go unrecognised. Mostly he teaches economics and business studies to sixth-formers. "But I did a day at a primary school last week, reading stories and dipping potatoes in paint," he says. "That gave me a good idea for decorating my study at Number 10." He does the famous head-back laugh - not as an act, but because it just happens to be the way he laughs.
Surprisingly, the likeness is even more striking at close quarters, and that's because so many of Tom's mannerisms naturally resemble Tone's. And yet it wasn't the lure of lookalike work that first tempted him away from full-time teaching. Rather, it was a colleague's suggestion two years ago that Tom join him on stage in a stand-up comedy routine. A promoter spotted him and offered him a booking in his own right. Before he could say "honestly, truly", Tom had the beginnings of an alternative career. Soon it became apparent that his looks could be earning him more than mere laughs. "I've been paid 300 quid for half an hour's work," he says. "Perhaps Tony Blair should try it sometime."
As one of only three professional Blair lookalikes in the country ("and one of them looks more like William Hague"), Tom found himself needing to take more and more leave from Sutton Coldfield FE college. So, earlier this year, he decided it was time to chuck in the day job. Now he might spend Friday in front of a class of 18-year-olds and the next evening at a gathering of bigwigs in Prague, giving a spoof speech on the subject of UK-Czech relations.
Today he has been teaching at a Birmingham sixth-form college. But only the day before yesterday he was at the Banqueting House in Whitehall, greeting 250 guests in the company of a Prince Charles lookalike. On that occasion, crowds of tourists, hearing the trumpet fanfares and seeing the two famous faces side-by-side in the foyer, begged to be allowed in to snap up the photo opportunity of a lifetime.
"I'm often asked to speak for five or 10 minutes," he says. "But 98 per cent of it is mixing and mingling." Major clients have included Tesco, Freeserve and British Airways. The world's favourite airline teamed Tom up with a particularly convincing Richard Branson lookalike "who could only appear with permission from Virgin".
Introducing himself as "your Prime Minister", he is called upon to circulate at corporate events, shaking hands and asking guests how far they have travelled. "The vast majority of people enjoy it," he says. But there are exceptions. "I was opening an extension to a Tesco store in New Malden once when an old boy came at me swinging his umbrella. He thought I really was Blair. He said: 'I've had enough of you and your cronies. It's bad enough that you're always on my television and my radio. Now you're in my shop as well.' In the end, he was apprehended by security."
Although the incident got Tom vaguely worried about the possibility of an assassination attempt, he was not entirely out of sympathy with his supermarket assailant. "Personally, I don't like Blair," says this son of a Limerick bus driver. "He's all things to all men. I'm a socialist, and I'm not sure that the Labour Party stands for that any more."
It occurs to Tom that, in a sense, he is more real than the politician whose identity he adopts for laughs. "It has crossed my mind to stand in the next general election as The Real Tony Blair," he says. And when I suggest he runs for Mayor of London next year, I can see the idea will receive some serious consideration. In the meantime, he is keen to blend his two careers by offering his services to schools and colleges looking for a way to brighten up their award ceremonies ("I'd do them a special cheap rate," he says).
He also has the National Union of Teachers annual conference in his sights. Here he conjures up an image of the PM on the platform haranguing teachers with the line: "Those who can, do - those who can't, teach." And, as he says it, the Midlands accent vanishes to be replaced by those familiar, clipped tones, while a sequence of hand movements, the product of hours in front of the mirror, completes the illusion.
And how does the real Tom Skehan get along in the classroom? Does the illusion get in the way of the teaching? On the contrary, he say, it comes in handy. "I've always found it helps with teaching if you have something different to offer. So I try to use it, perhaps giving them 30 seconds of Blair to get them thinking about the point I'm wanting to put across."
Teaching is a bit like stand-up, he says. "You use similar methods. You've got to have a point to make, and you've got to make it in an interesting way. If you come across as boring, you've had it. So you can't rabbit on for too long and you can never do more than 10 minutes on one subject."
And, when it comes to tackling hecklers he's convinced his teaching experience has stood him in good stead. "A comedy audience is easier to win over than the average secondary school class," he says. "Honestly, truly, you knowI" Tom Skehan can be contacted on 0121 246 2671. For more information, visit his websiteat http:members.aol.comrealblair After class jamie jones Will the real Prime Minister please stand up: Tom Skehan can earn pound;300 for half an hour's work as a Tony Blair lookalike