Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Working on Dennis Potter BBC Series "Blackeyes"

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I have done a fair amount of 'walk-on' or 'extra' work in television productions, ranging from 'EastEnders' to 'Lovejoy' and 'Keeping Up Appearances.' Generally you are in the background, literally 'walking-on', propping up the bar in the Vic in EastEnders or being a ruffian in the crowd in 'Middlemarch.' (This was described in quite a lot of detail in an earlier post.) Some you have to take quite a lot of direction. Anyone who says that being an extra or 'walk-on' is easy may like to know that you have to be able to take direction and not make mistakes and concentrate when being given instructions, as if you do  so it is going to waste valuable time and no production is going to want to employ people who constantly make mistakes and fool around on set. It is an expensive business making good quality drama for television and eventually you will be blacklisted and won't get used again.
On one occasion in the early 1990's I was called by my London agency as they were looking for someone to double for the actor Nigel Planer. I was told years ago that I had a striking resemblance to this actor (he made his name in the comedy series "The Young Ones.") This was for a new Dennis Potter series being made by the B.B.C.  called "Blackeyes," and the interiors were then being filmed at Ealing Studios. This would involve two day's work so I would need to drive to the studios each day. I was somewhat excited about this, as you can imagine, as I have never been a 'double' for anyone. Not only was I to be Nigel Planer's double, but I was to be his 'stand-in.' I have known that people do  this sort of work, being used on the set for lighting, setting up cameras, so that the star can remain in his/her dressing room or caravan and then just appear when needed for the actual filming. 
On arriving at the studios for the 'call' which was relatively early (as most filming starts at the crack of dawn for make-up, wardrobe etc.) I was met by a production assistant and then told that I would be working on the set with a young lady, ' who was standing in for  Gina Bellman, another star of the show, walking' the movements of the actors and speaking the lines. This was because most of the takes were very long, around 10 minutes, without any sort of 'cut away' and the camera was set up on a sort of track on the floor and as we spoke and moved around the camera would follow us. It was quite intensive and we had to get the moves right.
It was quite exciting filming at the famous Ealing Studios. At the time this was being filmed it was owned and operated by the B.B.C., but in it's past it was where a lot of really well-known films were made, mostly the famous Ealing Comedies such as 'Kind Hearts and Coronets', 'The Lady Killers;' 'Passport To Pimlico' and many more. In another studio next door to where the 'Blackeyes' set was built they were making one of the B.B.C. 'Narnia' series, based on the C.S. Lewis books. I'm not entirely sure which one, but during breaks outside the soundstages I saw actors in costume who were playing the little creatures which appeared in it, as they had taken off the costume heads and were standing around talking and having a cigarette break, so I assumed that was was what they were filming. 
During a lunch break one one of the days there I went to the canteen for lunch. I always talking to people I meet. It makes for really interesting day. The whole filming experience is really interesting and I have always had a keen interest in how television programmes and films are made. As I was sitting and eating my meal one of the crew sat with me. He was the lighting cameraman and we started chatting and he was telling me that for his next assignment (bearing in mind that this was around 1989-90 I'm talking about.) he was going to be filming a documentary series with Michael Palin, following in the footsteps of the character Phineas Fogg and going "Round The World in 80 Days." I now now how successful and popular that series became and how many more similar voyages Michael Palin made in future series, so it was quite a privilege to meet the man who actually went with him and filmed it!
Dennis Potter actually directed 'Blackeyes.' I can't say that it was one of my favourite Potter series, as I quite enjoyed his earlier series such as 'The Singing Detective', 'Pennies From Heaven' etc. This was somewhat controversial. A lot of his work has caused controversy in some way, but when you consider the rather dull drama we get served up by television these days, it certainly makes a difference to not have yet another police series or one set in a hospital. I suppose the nearest we get to what he was attempting would be Stephen Poliakov.
There were some scenes in the series where I was supposed to be watching someone through a window and I had to wear a costume that exactly replicated what Nigel Planer was wearing. There was also a scene where a man on stilts walked past the window of the flat and peers in. All this took a great deal of time and effort to film, but having since watched the finished, broadcast production I don't remember it being used, nor seeing myself in the background, watching through a window from across the street!  A pity, but you don't really do walk-on or even stand-in work to be seen necessarily. It was quite odd to stand and have a break with Nigel Planer as we are very similar facially. I just wish now that I had got someone to take a photograph with him. I was rather like looking at yourself in a mirror. I suppose today it would be a good deal easier, what with digital cameras and having cameras in mobile phones, but you aren't supposed to take cameras onto the set when you go filming, but I think people do regardless. All in all quite an interesting experience.

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