Celebrity Bake Off for Comic Relief (BBC One, 8.30pm) featured Jonathon Ross committing so many baking atrocities he was basically an insult to thousands of years of flour. His profiteroles were flat like discuses with blobs of split chocolate icing dabbed on. They were the singularly most unappealing things I’ve ever seen that claimed to be edible. Another contestant was blogger Zoella, with the most zeitgesity hair ever: dip dyed and in a fishtail plait, incorporating the biggest hair trends of the last few years. She spoke in sound bites rather than sentences and tried to fashion a beach hut for the Showstopper challenge, which involved her manhandling huge slices of lurid cake – posting bits through the defiled fondant icing. It was another iced travesty. The Star Baker was aggressively-perfectionist Gok Wan with his impressionistic take on the Shard, with tempered chocolate sprayed gold. Entertaining.
Anyway, to more interesting things. BBC Four showed an extraordinary film last night, The Great Sex Addict Heist: The Dog, about the man on whom the film Dog Day Afternoon is based, John Wojtowicz. To say that he led a colourful life is like saying Jonathon Ross’s baking needs work – ie, a massive understatement. John was clearly quite, quite insane but an engaging presence. All contributors to the film had Brooklyn accents as thick as Joey Essex and a turn of phrase no scriptwriter could ever emulate. Ernie’s friend described her as having a “loud, loud, loud mouth. The wallpaper would curl off the walls when she started cursing.” He also described John as a “troll that loved her.”
John merrily described himself as a pervert – “I’ve had four wives, 23 girlfriends” – and he was indiscriminately promiscuous. He married his first wife, Carmen Bifulco, in his twenties but left her two years later with two kids. John was unashamedly bisexual, having his first gay experience in Vietnam at the mouth of a hillbilly (“He blew great, he was like a summer breeze”). He fell deeply in love with a malevolently beautiful but mercurial semi-transsexual named Ernie Aron. He could still recall the exact date they met for the cameras. Ernie was the definition of a diva, requesting velvet roses instead of the real ones John showered her with every time they met. They “married”, Ernie in a dress that cost $1000 (in 1970s money!!), with the priest having no idea she was a man, nor the cops who came across the street to congratulate them. Ernie, however, was deeply troubled and kept attempting suicide as she wanted a sex change. After she overdosed on pills she was confined to the “nuthouse” as John called it, and he became determined to get her out, so decided to rob a bank to get the money for her sex change. He enlisted two accomplices and they drove around looking for a suitable bank, after watching The Godfather “for inspiration”. In the drive, one of them dropped a gun out the window and it went off and they screeched off, leaving bewildered witnesses. The gun had been disguised in a giant chewing gum packet (“People would think it was pop art. It made sense to me.”) Eventually they found a bank and one accomplice immediately bailed out. John and Sal Naturale ended up keeping the bank workers hostage as a media circus and everyone in Brooklyn gathered outside to watch the unfolding drama. John requested his “wife” Ernie, who tried to talk him out of it. Eventually the stand off ended with the hostages being delivered to an airport and poor 18-year-old Sal Naturale being shot dead by the FBI.
For John though, the crime did the job: “Ernie got the sex change, Ernie lived.” Ernie, now Liz Eden, told John she could no longer see him as he was not good for her. John served seven years in a tough prison where he was often attacked before being taken under the wing of the soulfully beautiful George Heath, who became his third “wife”. His mother, hard-as-nails but indulgent of him throughout (he lived with her until his death, he had a bell to call her), would sneak in “meat, grated cheese, pickles” to him in her bra – “he was hungry.”
John clearly relished the attention the film had brought him, returning to “my bank” after his release sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with “I robbed this bank” and signing autographs. He and Liz appeared on talk shows together, where John said “if I knew why I loved him, I could stop. He’s lousy in bed” while Liz accused him of robbing the bank because he was indebted to the mob for their wedding.
Sadly, Liz did not find the peace she craved in the sex change and died of AIDS in the Eighties. John, meanwhile, appears to have lived off the film ever since, calling himself “Dog Day Afternoon”, gleefully calling “Quiet on the set” while being filmed for the documentary. He was the definition of self-aggrandisement. The film showed John succumbing to cancer – eventually he was seen painfully frail and skinny in a wheelchair, being pushed by his older brother Tony (who had severe epilepsy and had been institutionalised at the age of five, against their mother’s will, where he had remained ever since) round a zoo. He was as indomitable as ever, leaning into the sea lion enclosure to harass the inhabitants: “Get up here, you assholes!” to Tony’s peals of helpless laughter. As his mother said: “he was bad and he was good.”
It was a fascinating film – about how a life ended up pivoting on one afternoon; about how bizarre and all-consuming love can be; and, above all, about just how strange life is. A must-see.