I ended up in a timewarp yesterday – or, as the authorities call it – White City. It’s a gothic, Gotham-like monolith of a shit-tip, Television Centre. It has all the flavour and allure of a municipal swimming pool, but one with cardboard cut-outs of Strictly Come Dancing presenters and participants in every corner. Have you ever had to share a lift with a cardboard, life-size Bruce Forsyth? I did yesterday and it was deeply sinister. An avuncular hand tapped me on the aged shoulder yesterday and offered me a day and a half’s salary for turning up to the BBC for an hour and a half and doing some undemanding acting which involved dirty hair. Well, I’m not going to say No, am I? Tapping away on here every week imparting bits of nonsense has precisely netted me £0.00 since February 2010 and the clip joint business isn’t what it used to be. There’s a recession on and we must exploit whatever remedial-level acting talents we may have once had here at Bluebird Towers.
The first time I came here was in 1997 when, fresh out of drama school, I headed here on a very hot day for a voiceover appointment with Fiona Bruce, ate all the crisps and got my period. This heralded a great panic of half an hour where I argued with, in order of sequence : 1. My mother. 2. The tampax machine, mainly by physical aggression and thumping and 3. The lady whose job it was to replenish the Tampax machine and who had – clearly in this instance – failed. By the time I got up 5 flights of stairs to be met by a remarkably groomed, smooth-voiced Fiona B, I was out of my mind, red-faced, insane and more than a little teary. I wasn’t asked back. In those days it all seemed to matter. Now, I’m like, oh fuck ’em – I mean, it’s a day out isn’t it?
I rocked on up there yesterday, prepared to knock out one of my fruitiest non-speaking performances and taking along a packet of ginger biscuits. The biscuits are an imperative. Whatever time you’re told to turn up to Television Centre, you won’t be seen for an average of 78 minutes. It’s a guaranteed smorgasbord of top class people watching in the reception. Getting there at 3.30 meant we would be used at 4.38, I calculated. I was right – to the second. Walking in I was pleased at the effort all the other actors had made with the costume instructions, as we were told to be a bit scruffy and environmentally friendly-looking. I joined the cluster of non-speaking, non-working actors who were shuffling around looking like all the spirit had been slowly sucked out of them by years of this type of nonsense. Some of them had great backpacks, hadn’t combed their hair and were clearly going for the method acting. I admired their pluck and motivation. Then a man came along, who called everyone “guys” (even the ladies) and they all went off. It turned out they weren’t actors but just random messy unclean people who had arrived for the BBC Tour. Fortunately, I didn’t follow them, otherwise I’d have been having a tour of the Holby City coffee room and being made to sit on Jeremy Paxman’s lap or something, whilst I should have been unrolling my dusty acting diploma and doing a bit of work in the salubrious confines of Current Affairs.
In the corner there were a small cluster of people, whose faces were further faded than those who turned up to do the BBC tour, who looked very anxious about the state of their lives and who nervously chewed the chords on their anoraks. I had, it seemed, found my people.
These were background artistes (the label by which Extras go in these times) and they bear the countenances of people who have worked for years in jobs where they have had no agency of voice or character and where they slip away through the catering truck at 7pm after a thankless day’s work in which no one had bothered to learn their names. In the main, it seemed, it had broken them. Most of them were like faded photocopies of the real, voiced, characters they may have once had the capacity to be. Still, it had been fun for the hour to sit in the reception area – although the mid-afternoon children’s TV that boomed out from three televisions and which it was not possible to escape from seemed starkly sinister in this great grey, glass horror of a waiting area. I have yet to determine why people who work in the BBC at White City always get dressed in the dark. The Crimes against Fashion were abhorrent, frequent, and nearly put me off my ginger nuts. People, I ask, when did it become acceptable to go to work dressed in faded black jeans that last saw high street clothes racks in 1992? Why is the errant choirboy haircut that Jason Donovan sported in the mid 1990s now worn by intense looking middle-aged chaps with chubby tummies and moobs who strut about petulantly in boat shoes? Why is everyone white here, except the cleaner? Why do the women feel compelled to dress like depressed Geography teaching lesbians of a minor public school? This is the national broadcaster, for God’s sake. There should be a little bit of pride, or if not pride then certainly a mandatory dress code that should on no account include the hateful button-down collar. Two miserable Strictly Come Dancing glitterballs do nothing to counteract the dreary awfulness of this mausoleum of a place.
We are collected, although we still know not what for. One of the background artistes thinks we may be used as activists regarding something to do with the current protests. Another extra, a bizarre 1980s hybrid sort of chap with a beanie hat and a leather jacket with the legend “Motorhead – England” on the reverse in Tippex-white gothic lettering, says “What protests? There are no protests going on are there?” The first chap fills him in. Motorhead twitches and looks like he is in the wrong building. The fellow lady actor is risible and depressed and dislikes everyone. This is not unusual for a background artist; whilst actors hate directors, producers, casting officials and editors, background artistes hate actors – oh, and directors, producers, casting officials and editors. It isn’t mandatory to be a misanthrope if you are a background artist, but by golly, it helps. On arrival in the room in which we will be doing our filming, the producer, a warm and enthusiastic woman, leads us through the main story which will give us some context. Mid-flow, when she gets to the crux of the story and is getting quite animated about the current affairs issue, Motormouth holds his fingerless-gloved hands up: “Scuse me luv, but where’s the toilet?” The nature of his enquiries varied little throughout the course of the afternoon. When our pleasant producer said she was going out that evening, he enquired whether she was going to “get mashed” at which point she just looked a little thrown. Throughout our job, we are instructed to “rhubarb”, the nonsense mumbling tomfoolery that actors are required to produce to give impression of talking. But I soon realise that everything, when amplified through the confines of Motormouth’s beard, sounds like “rhubarb”. The general conversation consists of travel, who lives where and a bizarre anecdotal trawl through the annals of Extra-ing, during which I learn : Ricky Gervais is difficult to work with, carrying a spear ought to come under “special skills” and therefore imply a pay rise and if you work with dwarves sometimes they fall off tables. The room we are sitting in is not insulated – either that or someone forgot to turn the heating on. But it also seems that someone forgot to turn the acting on as well.
Being a background artist has a great democracy and freedom about it; training isn’t needed and the business is open to all. This in itself is a wonderful thing, as training often doesn’t create good leading actors, and personal experience has not made me a huge fan of training. But you do need to have something. If a director asks you to improvise through a scene, it is no good to sit there looking embarrassed. All actors look like idiots when they’re improvising in someone else’s clothes. You just have to get on with it, and, if it’s a serious scene, you shouldn’t have to be reminded by the director every 10 minutes that you shouldn’t be laughing. All in all, then, it was a very odd business. Motorhead was more interested in locating the loos and my fellow lady actor was incredibly good at bad mouthing every element of the process that has been her job for the last fifteen years. We sat about looking serious and nodding and being told to turn our coffee cups around so that no one could see the logo. Extras are a bit like that : you aren’t allowed to see the logo : the agency of true identity and visibility is banished and instead they must be that beige slab of background upon which other, better, actors appear. I cannot think of a business more likely to drive you out of your mind and render you with a overwhelming feeling of futility than being a background artiste. And if that isn’t enough, you’re in cardboard-looking White City. In October. And it’s raining. And at home, 6 hours later, we discover the story was not shown anyway. Now they were extras not only devoid of name, character and voice, but devoid of visibility of any kind, having left no celluloid mark whatsoever.
Three cups of coffee and £100 later we were out of there, slipping out into the West London night and braving the rush hour Central Line home. The extras shed their paint-by-numbers characters and before I knew it they had disappeared – nameless, wordless, hopeless – into the black night, whilst the constant crowd of self-important men with biros in boat shoes, continued wandering through the great corporation doing extremely important things and being very busy and not even noticing the extras who had just disappeared out through the automatic doors.
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