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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Television Walk-on

I got into doing television extra work quite by accident. I had always loved theatre, but in particular I had wanted to get into television, with the idea of working in drama. I was told by the BBC, at around the time I left school in the late 1960's that if I worked in theatre, particularly in stage management, then, once I had a few years experience behind me I might be considered for work as an A.F.M. (Assistant Floor Manager.) I wrote what looked like endless letters to theatres all over the country to see whether I could get a job in their stage management departments, and eventually got a job at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham as a Student A.S.M. This was really a good way for the theatre to get cheap labour, as I wasn't paid a real wage, getting the princely sum of something like £2.50 a week, which meant that my parents had to subsidise me, although I was getting some sort of training for the time I was there, just under a year. The hours were extremely long, but I suppose you do that sort of job 'for the love of it.'

I seem to be wondering off the track of what I had intended writing about, so I should skip quite a bit and get on to talking about television 'walk-on,' or 'extra' work, although in some cases the term 'extra' is wrong, and in some cases rather derogatory. I will explain why as I proceed with writing this. This was the time when to work in theatre you needed to be in the union, Equity, and unless you had a card, then you couldn't work and particularly you couldn't do 'Walk-On' work. The agencies were quite hot on this. I managed to gain my Equity membership when I worked in Stage Management. My main reason to do this sort of work was that I was really interested in the making of films and television, and this always seemed a really good way to see, first hand, how a television show was made. The idea that you could be paid for it was a bonus, but at the time that side of it had never occurred to me. Being paid for doing something you like doing was even more of a bonus.

I think I must have answered an advertisement in the Stage to join an agency to do 'walk-on' and must have forgotten, because, quite out of the blue I got a telephone call asking me if I was interested in doing a day's filming on a television series called 'Jenny's War' which was on location at the Nene Valley Railway, just beyond Peterborough. I said that I was, and I was then told that I needed to go there almost immediately for a costume fitting to be a German soldier. Not only was I fitted with a costume, but I was also given a haircut, not your average sort of hair-cut, but a very severe short-back-and-sides sort of haircut that would have been executed on German soldiers of the Second World War period. All this I did, and was then told that the next day I needed to return bright and early to work on the 'shoot' as a walk-on. All this was very new to me, but I managed to report to the correct person within the film unit and we spent the rest of the day getting in and out of carriages and pretending to be German soldiers, and generally enjoying the whole experience of being on a film set.

I heard from several of the other 'Walk-Ons' that I really needed to join another agency, as they had far more work than the one I had got the day's work from, and based just outside Norwich. I was given their address and telephone number. So, next day, I rang them, and was immediately told that they wanted Walk-Ons on a B.B.C. television film being made at the time called "The Burston Rebellion." The nice lady at the agency told me that, if I wanted to do more work with them, I ought to send them some photographs of myself, and more details of my height, hair colour, waist measurements and so on, to be put on their files, so as to make casting me in future productions easier. As a result I had to get some photographs taken of myself, which I sent off to this agency. I seemed to get quite a lot of work from them, and worked on such shows as "Lovejoy", "Campion" and "Middlemarch." Infact, I did quite a lot of 'bits' in "Lovejoy" over the years, and always looked forward to April, when it begin filming.

I worked on another series which used the Nene Valley Railway as a location, and called "Christabel." We were German soldiers once more, and we had to do a night shoot. We were called at around 2.00 and told that we would be rehearsing a sequence which would require us to sing a song, in German, and which was to be part of a scene on a train which was supposed to be stuck in the snow on the German border, and the R.A.F. were supposed to be bombing in the background. We had to learn this song phonetically, and it was rather like the number "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" in the film of "Cabaret," where it's set outside a tavern, and one boy starts to sing, and gradually the rest of the people sitting at tables join in, until the whole screen is filled with singing. Well, that was how this song was supposed to be shown in this scene, set on board a train. When it came to actually filming, quite late at night, it took endless takes, and with the principals (the main actors.) doing their bit whilst we did our bit in the background (incidentally, the actress playing the title character in this, was played by Elizabeth Hurley.) Anway, you can imagine how difficult a lot of this was, in a cramped railway carriage, with a load of other walk-ons, all dressed as German soldiers, together with the added extra of the rifles and back-packs we had to carry with us, and also all the camera and sound equipment and unit personel, director, cameraman and so on that were involved in the making of this film. It was during all this that one of the walk-on's had something fall on their head, from the luggage rack in the railway carriage, and they had to be taken by a member of the crew to Accident and Emergency at the local hospital. To this day I don't know what happened to them.

When this show was eventually shown on television I watched it, and the scene we had filmed, with us singing that song, was cut so that there was no singing at all! Perhaps the show ran too long so they decided to cut that sequence. Who knows? All that work and effort for nothing, it would seem.

Having a scene cut is quite often the case on things I've done. Don't do Walk-On work if you expect to see yourself in every scene, as generally you won't see yourself. You can end up behind a pillar, or so far back in the scene that you are little more than a speck on the screen, or you walk past and are gone in a split second! Generally you are in the background and the principals (those actors in speaking roles) are the centre of the scene being filmed. The general rule is don't stare at the camera, don't trip over the scenery and do whatever is asked of you. If you don't you will get a reputation as a trouble maker and won't be used again. And the golden rule is, never speak to the principals unless they speak to you first, and NEVER, EVER ask for autographs! Or take a camera with you onto the set, as it will most likely be taken off you. On most set-ups. you will be directed by one of the floor crew or an assistant director. It is quite rare for the director of the production to direct Walk-Ons, although I have been directed by the actual director of a production. You will be told what you have to do and then the scene is rehearsed, and then several 'dry-runs' attempted. Then, when it has been decided that everything is as the director wants it, they will 'go for a take.' You then have to remember what it is you have to do and begin on 'action' or 'background action.' If the director is satisfied then they will move on to the next set-up or several more 'takes' will be shot. The Walk-On's will then be told to wait somewhere off-set until they are needed again, and usually there is a great deal of waiting around, but you have to be ready and waiting for the call to go back on the set for another scene. Always take something with you on location to keep yourself occupied when not filming, such as a book, a newspaper, a Nintendo DS or an iPod.

I got called by the agency one Saturday morning. I needed to be on location immediately to film on the BBC series "Campion." I drove to the location and got there in about an hour and a half. I was to be a policeman in a scene with Peter Davison and Brian Glover, who were in a vintage car (the show was set in the 1930's). I was to ride a bicycle and they were held up by a man hearding sheep along a country lane. The sheep behaved impeccably, working really well and did as they were told, but the car that the actors drove in didn't appreciate all the waiting and being left to idle, so it kept cutting out, which meant that there were endless takes for the scene in question.

We did quite a few scenes on that episode with me as a policeman. On one such scene there were several of us in a car, which was supposed to stop and we were supposed to get out and chase after the villain (I think it was the climax of one of the episodes, but I can't remember the name of the story.) We attempted several rehearsals, but then it was decided that, if we took our helmets off we'd find it easier to get out of the car, which was quite small. So, on the next attempt we did it helmetless, and it worked perfectly.

Another “Campion” story I was in I was the opposite side of the law, one of the villain’s henchmen (played with real gusto by Iain Cuthbertson, who seems to have made playing ‘heavies’ his forte.) It certainly made a change from being a ‘goody.’ We were dressed in suitable 1930’s garb, and I wore a long leather coat and broad-brimmed hat, and the make-up department had given me a scar across one cheek, which had been made with a substance which came in a small bottle rather like nail-polish and was applied with a brush. On drying, it made the skin of my face contract and produce a really convincing scar. When it was dry, another layer was applied, and on each application, the skin seemed to contract even more, making the ‘scar’ appear even more convincing. And, to make things even more menacing, I was given an eye-patch to wear over one of my eyes!

We did quite a few scenes driving around the North Norfolk countryside in some marvellous period cars, which didn’t always behave as the crew would have wanted, and didn’t appreciate being kept idling in the warm sunshine, so, whenever a take was required and the director called ‘action’ they didn’t always move on cue.

On one particular occasion we were taken by bus to another location, a wood, and myself and another Walk-On were supposed to be spying on Peter Davison (as Albert Campion) as he walked through the woods (no doubt looking for clues or something.) We weren’t supposed to be seen by him, for obvious reasons, and we had been detailed by one of the assistants to stand by a dilapidated shed and look menacing. They had wanted me to smoke a cigarette, but, as I don’t smoke, I was given a match stick to chew. The sequence started with the camera full on us, I chewed on the matchstick, and then threw it away. The camera then picks up Campion moving through the trees in mid-distance, and I signal to my companion, and we walk slowly through the woods, being as stealthy as possible, presumably so as not to be seen by Campion. The crew had marked a line on the floor where we were supposed to stop, so that we were at the front of the shot, and Campion was in the background. We rehearsed it several times, but, because of the eye-patch, I could never see the mark on the ground! We did eventually complete the sequence successfully, and I have seen this in the finished production, but I still can’t recall the name of the story or the episode it is in!

I managed to keep the scar once we had finished shooting, and drove home with it on. It lasted a day or so, but eventually I had to peel it off!

There are one or two scenes in other shows where I am quite prominent, and not hidden behind a lamp-post and just a fleeting, passing shadow. I worked on an episode of "Keeping Up Appearances." It's the one where Hyacinth persuades the hapless Richard (her husband) to test drive a Rolls Royce (just another attempt to put one over her neighbours and look down her nose at the socially-inept.) He agrees and drives the Roller off the forecourt of the garage where they have been looking at the cars on show. They drive off into the country, much to Richard's dismay, but as usual Hyacinth is goading him to 'put his foot down.' They eventually arrive at a country hotel (which is actually a few miles outside Stratford-Upon-Avon.) This is where a friend of hers is staying and she hopes that arriving in a Rolls Royce will be the icing on the cake to cause envy. And who else should arrive at the hotel, but her sister Daisy and her uncouth husband Onslow and Daddy, in a clapped out banger which has an exhaust which explodes unexpectedly and leaves clouds of smoke as it goes along. Anyway, as they get to the hotel, the car breaks down (really unlikely, as Rolls Royce vehicles never 'break down' or at least they are never supposed to.) It is at this point that some of the guests appear at the windows of the hotel and come outside to have a look to see what all the noise is about. (I think Richard sets off the car alarm on the Rolls or something.) and I am one of the guests who is seen quite clearly in the centre of all the action, hamming it up for all I'm worth! In fact, I'm in several of the shots in this sequence, making disapproving faces and generally having a good time. Well, as we weren't allowed to speak, I had to make some sort of expression and 'act' accordingly.

I did some work on something else which wasn't actually classed as a 'drama.' It was a documentary series called "Soldiers" which was about fighting men through the centuries and they used dramaticised sequences where we were used, but didn't speak. A lot of it was filmed in the army training area near Thetford, in Norfolk. There was a sequence which was filmed in a disused church in the battle area, and we were dressed in period soldiers uniforms and were laying around on the floor (!) being treated by medical people. It was really quite uncomfortable. There was another sequence which showed a soldier having his leg amputated and they had a false leg which had be taken off a soldier. I recall one of the Walk- On's being chosen to be the poor soldier who has his leg cut off and having to lie on this make-shift operating table and his leg having to match as near as possible the false leg!

We were put into these soldier's uniforms, beautifully made, and they must have cost a fortune, whether they had been hired from a costume company or been made specially for this production I don't know, and then they wanted us to look as if we'd been injured in battle and the costume department had to rip great holes in these uniforms, tear chunks out of the arms or legs and then we had to put mud on them to make them look as if we'd been injured in a battle, and to cap it all we had stage blood and gore applied to make it look even more authentic. Some people had latex scars put on their heads and arms and other parts of their bodies, and what made it even more grotesque was when these bits of latex came off, and usually at inapropriate times, such as when we were having coffee or lunch breaks, and then the make-up ladies had to stick them back on again!

One sequence we did which was quite complex was shot at night. It was supposed to be after the Battle Of Waterloo, and we were supposed to be the dead and dieing. A special camera track was set up, which would be used for a long tracking shot, while a large camera crane was bought in to do some ariel shots. If I remember correctly, the whole shoot was held up beccause this crane got stuck in some soft ground or something and they had to get it out before the shoot could begin. This was all done in the evening as the sun was setting, but to be historically accurate it was actually supposed to be the morning with the sun setting. Another actor was used to ride a horse through the dead and dieing and was made up to be the Duke Of Wellington, and at a given cue people were supposed to appear, carrying lighted branches and loot the bodies. Now, we were laying on the ground, which wasn't exactly comfortable, and it was also really quite cold, as this was quite early in the year, around April. So, there we were, laying on the ground, pretending to be dead, and it's cold, so we were shivering, the camera is tracking along this specially constructed railway-line, and we're trying our hardest not to shiver, because, remember, we're supposed to be dead, and then Wellington comes along on his horse (or, at least, and actor pretending to be The Iron Duke.) and the horse has to carefully tread over us bodies on the ground, and we mustn't react to this at all (as we are supposed to be dead.) and then one of the stage crew notices that our boots which we are wearing have 20th century soles to them, so the set-up has to be re-taken after we have moved our feet so that the soles of our boots aren't seen by the camera!

This entire sequence took something like six hours to set up and film, and when it was shown in the finished programme which I saw when it was broadcast, the sequence lasts  no more than 45 seconds.

When we had finished filming for the day, we had to change out of our costumes and put our every-day clothes on again to go home. We had been covered in stage blood and gore and had the chance to use a shower to wash it all off, but it was really late, or rather, very early morning when we had finished and I just wanted to drive home, so I didn't bother to wash the blood and gore off. I drove away, and then realised that I needed to fill the car up with petrol and went to a filling station on the A14 somewhere near Newmarket. I don't know what the cashier thought when he saw me coming towards him to pay after I'd filled the car up with fuel, as I must have looked like one of the walking dead as I was covered in this stage blood and gore!

" 'Allo, 'Allo" was another show I worked on and used the Thetford battle area for some of it's scenes. It was partly written by David Croft, responsible, with Jimmy Perry for many classic sitcoms of the sixties and seventies. "Dad's Army" is perhaps the best known, and many exterior scenes were filmed in and around Thetford, Thetford Forest and the battle area.  There was one sequence that was a sort of spoof of all Word War 2 films, a sort of cliche being that someone is rescued from a prisoner of war camp by escaping through a tunnel to the outside world. Well, this being " 'Allo, 'Allo"' the characters are trying to get IN to a prisoner of war camp! (just to make sure that it gets maximum comic potential, of course!) " 'Allo, 'Allo" used Swaffham as the unit base for the production, and we filmed quite a lot around that area. I was dressed up as a German Soldier and had to go to a hotel in Swaffham for a costume fitting before the week's shooting began a few week's later. A lot of scenes were done at Lynford Hall in Norfolk. This is a rather imposing country house, in the style of a French chateau, which makes sense as the show is set in France. I believe the exterior of the house was used quite extensively in the show. The stable courtyard at the back of the house was made up to be the village square and the exterior of Rene's cafe.  Actually, not a lot happened to tell you here, and it was a rather ordinary week's filming, but I am in quite a few scenes. These were usually of me outside Rene's cafe, sitting at a table, drinking either coffee or wine. (You have to remember that these were the exterior scenes, and the scenes inside the cafe were shot in a studio at B.B.C. Television Centre in London, so I'm not in any of those scenes, unfortunately.)

This series, together with "Keeping Up Appearances," is constantly being repeated on either the UKTV channels, or on BBC 1, usually at Sunday lunchtimes.

Another series I did quite a lot of work on was "Middlemarch." I have a feeling that this adaptation of the George Eliot novel was what started the current trend for doing costume dramas, as the BBC hadn't done one for quite a few years prior to this series. Most of it was shot in and around Stamford in Lincolnshire. This particular scene involved several hundred Supporting Artistes, and we were supposed to be watching Robert Hardy as a totally inept politician, give a speech. We had to arrive at around 6 a.m to get into our costumes, and once we were dressed we went to a car park in the centre of Stamford (Carol and I went to Stamford recently and parked in the same car park during our visit.) and we were tried out to see what our reactions were like. We had to cheer and generally make a lot of noise, as if we were reacting to someone giving a speech. It was during this that the stage crew selected a handful of the assembled mass to be at the front of the crowd, myself included, as we would be seen extensively during the finished scene, and would need to take quite a lot of direction and therefore had to react to the actors. We worked most of the day on the scene, which barely lasts ten minutes in the finished episode, but I am quite visable and really managed to over-act, which made the day more interesting than merely standing in the background (which happened to the rest of the Walk-Ons.)We had to hurl rotten fruit at the poor Robert Hardy (he is such a likeable person that throwing anything nasty at him seemed so awful!) and he also had an egg thrown in his face at one point, which had to be re-shot several times, which cannot have been very nice for the poor man.

Another sequence I was involved in filming on “Middlemarch” was in one of the streets in Stamford, near where the hustings scene was shot. We were passers-by, and some of the principals were doing their scene the other side of the street. There were horses being ridden past and carts, drawn by horses, as the traffic in the street, and myself and another Walk-On had to cross the road, on cue, but it was timed just before a horse and cart went by. We did several rehearsals and it was then that I realised how dangerous this was. A car can stop dead, when the brakes are applied, but a horse is somewhat unreliable and might not stop dead when commanded to do so by the driver who was in control. Also, as it rumbled past, I could feel the whole road vibrate with the weight and sheer strength. I really was relying on the driver of the cart to know his stuff and make sure he could stop if there was an emergency. We eventually did several ‘takes’ and it went well enough, but it was somewhat hairy, to say the least!

Another show I did, about a year later, was partially shot at Burleigh House, just outside Stamford. This was called “Buccaneers” and was based on a novel by Edith Wharton. We were supposed to be guests at a society wedding. The interiors for the actual reception were shot at another location, Grimsthorpe Castle, near Grantham, actually not too far from Stamford. We had done those scenes about two week before the shoot at Burleigh.

One scene we shot was of the married couple leaving at the end of the reception. We were supposed to be watching, through a metal fence at the front of the house, and the camera was set up to get our reactions as we watched the carriage driving away. As we were facing away from the departing carriage, the camera obviously couldn’t see it. A member of the floor crew was detailed to run across the park behind, waving a clip-board in the air, to give us an eye-line as if he was the departing carriage! When the film was cut together you would have seen the carriage going away with the happy couple, and the reverse shot of us watching through the fence!

Not all the television work I have done has been directly as a Walk-On or Support Artiste. I got called one day by a London agency to work on a Dennis Potter production which was being shot at Ealing Studios, called “BlackEyes.” I was to be a stand-in and double for Nigel Planer. I was told ages ago that there was a close facial resemblance between myself and this particular actor. I had to report to the unit management of this production early the next day at Ealing. I was going to be working with a young lady who was going to be standing in for one of the other principals in this production, Gina Bellman. We had to ‘walk-through’ certain scenes from the production, and speak the lines of the actors, as the camera and lighting crews set up the shots that the actors would later film, as the ‘takes’ were to be really long (about ten minutes) without any ‘cut-aways’ as is usual in making a film or television drama. It meant that, once the scene started, the scene would continue with the camera moving around the actors, and wouldn’t contain any sort of ‘cut-aways’ in all that time.

The work of a stand-in is to assist the cameraman, lighting director and sometimes the director as they light certain scenes, and you have to be generally the same height and body-shape of that actor. The principals, meanwhile, are in their dressing room or trailer, and don’t come onto the set until all the technical bits-and-pieces have been sorted out.

So, we spent two days on this work, and I was also used as a double for Nigel Planer, being dressed in exactly the same costume as he wore, and was supposed to be watching from a window across the street, looking into the flat where most of the action was taking place. There was also a man walking on stilts outside in the street, who walked past and also looked into the windows of the flat. I seem to remember that it was actually a mews flat, and the set was built as a ‘cut-away’ section of mews flat and the street outside, complete with a section of pavement, tarmac-surfaced road and cobbles, stairs up into the flat, which was complete with lounge, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, although none of it was plumbed in, but it was all very realistic. There was even a tiny garden at the back, planted very realistically with plants, trees, flowerbeds and a tiny bit of lawn.

It was really exciting to be working with Dennis Potter as the director, and I have a feeling, looking back, that this would have been one of the last projects he worked on before he died. I did see the finished production when it was broadcast, and I will admit that it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. I didn’t see myself in it, or if I was in it, it was only very briefly, and I never did see the stilt-walker. Having said that, it was a really interesting experience. I do wish now that I had taken a camera with me onto the set, as I’d have loved to have had a photograph of myself with Nigel Planer, as it was rather like looking into a mirror as we do look similar. Do I look like him, or does he look like me? I was thinking that, if his career really took off, I could be his stand-in on more films he gets involved in, but he doesn’t seem to be one of those actors who makes very many films. Some people make quite good livings as stand-ins for famous actors and go to Hollywood, but it doesn’t seem to be the case with me. Oh well, there is always another day!

Although this blog is about television walk-on, there are other areas of work in the non-speaking field. I'm not a trained actor and have never been to stage  school (although I did have interviews for stage management courses at R.A.D.A. and the Central School of Speech and Drama but never got in, hence getting into stage management as a student at Cheltenham.) I have done one television commercial, for water privitisation and some modelling (for a magazine called "Moneywise.") These areas of work can be far more lucrative than mere 'Walk-On' and particularly if you are featured.

The "Moneywise" shoot was done in a studio in London. It was to go with an article in the magazine called something like 'How to Get Rich Quick' and I was supposed to be Mr Scrooge. They lit me in a rather garish green light and I was supposed to look greedy and rub my hands together (in the style of Ebenezer Scrooge.) Later in the shoot, I was joined by a lady who was supposed to be Mrs Scrooge (I know, there wasn't one!) and we had to grab £10 notes which were dropped from a height. No, we weren't allowed to keep them. These photographs were used within the article itself. The photographer took Poloroid shots to get the lighting correct and to see that what he was shooting was in accord with the creative director's plans for the cover design and layout. Once this was right he took the actual photographs. The whole shoot took no more than three hours.
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