It’s that time of year again. Marks have all been ratified, and the students have packed their bags and returned to families doubtless anxious to feed them up and process weeks of laundry. Many are gearing up for their graduation ceremonies (our own will be taking place around the time this goes to press), before heading out into the world to seek their fortunes. It is for us, and them, a time of reflection.
Last month at MediaCityUK we held our annual BAFTARs ceremony (a witty conflation of the BA Television and Radio degree – BATAR – and the BAFTAs), at which outstanding second and third year student work is rewarded with a gong, of sorts (only plastic, but it’s the thought that counts). The focus, as with the degree itself, is on practice work, though since last year we have also included awards for Best Theory Essay, Levels 5 and 6 (which is what we call years two and three). Whereas the practice awards are judged and presented by industry figures, it falls to myself and my colleagues to judge the theory work, and we also do the honours in terms of speechifying.
It’s at moments like this that the theory/practice divide becomes apparent. On our course, theory comprises one third of modules taught and work submitted; a ratio that I know varies between different universities offering similar degrees (in my hourly paid days I worked at one institution that featured a fifty-fifty split, and another where theory made up just one quarter of the programme). Yet while I don’t doubt that my practice colleagues hold me in the same esteem as I them, I cannot help but sense that there is a feeling among some of the student body – not all, but some – that this theory stuff isn’t what they really signed up for when they slapped down their tuition fees. ‘When do I get a go on the ORAD?’ they cry.
At times, it’s almost as though they regard the practice stuff as in some way being more… well… fun.
Certainly the experience and contacts offered by practice tutors are, along with our location (a stone’s throw from BBC, ITV and all sorts of independent production houses), a major USP, and this is heavily promoted on open days. During induction week a couple of years ago, the then Head of Programme made a point of emphasising the tutors’ practice pedigree, proudly announcing: ‘We’re all from industry here; we all have industry experience.’
One theory colleague, who has spent his life entirely at books, looked at me and raised a wry eyebrow, as is his wont. I smirked derisively, as is mine.
But, little did he – or any of them – know, our leader’s statement was in fact more applicable to me than might at first be suspected. For all my academic endeavours, I in fact hail from (and I don’t want you telling everyone this) a practice background. Yes, that’s right; twice I have tried (and failed) to make it in ‘the biz’ – and I have the physical and psychological scars to prove it.
After graduating from the Creative Arts degree at what we must now call Manchester Metropolitan University Cheshire (at the wonderful Alsager campus – now defunct, as its Crewe sibling will be before too long; shameful) in 1995, I set my sights, like many of my fellows, on a career in the media. Unlike the media degrees of today, however, my course (a modular programme, on which I specialised in Music and Visual Arts, basically playing the drums and taking photographs for three years and having the time of my life) had not equipped me with that many practical skills. I had conquered my fear of heights and learnt to climb something called a tallescope and rig lights in Black Hole theatre, and had operated the lighting console on various of my friends’ directing pieces. But that was pretty much it. Undaunted, I went through the Yellow Pages (this was pre-Internet) and wrote letters to around thirty independent television companies in London (using my brand new Starwriter word processor – I couldn’t afford a PC).
I received two offers of interview.
The first was in West London, and I turned up wearing a suit (Yves St Laurent, if you’re interested), because that was what I thought one did for interviews. I don’t think the person questioning me was impressed, as I never heard back – despite making several (increasingly plaintive) follow up calls.
The second was in Barnet. I again wore the suit (which my interlocutor later told me was definitely a mistake, darling), but this time was offered the position of runner, starting the next day. I remember the interview date very clearly, because it was Saint Valentine’s Day 1996, and I celebrated the appointment with my sweetheart that evening via a slap-up meal at a hostelry called the Village in Muswell Hill.
My new employer headed a company specialising in sports documentaries, which he ran from two adjacent flats: one for him to live and work in, and another utilised as a workspace for his staff, which numbered two full-timers, plus a part-time accountant and a number of hourly paid creative types. I believe that my former employer is no longer with us (though I hope otherwise), but will not name him here as I wouldn’t wish to upset anyone.
He was, at least when I knew him, an unkempt man. In the four months I worked there, I only saw him fully dressed once (for a family wedding). This is not to say that he was a naturist, but his attire usually consisted of pyjamas and dressing gown, none of which were particularly clean. He shaved rarely, and bits of his breakfast often still adorned his stubble when he called me in for my morning briefing. By this time he could have been anywhere between fifty and sixty-five (I fear I wasn’t seeing him at his best); overall he could be described as resembling a somewhat dishevelled, dissipated Michael Winner.
In his palmy days, my boss had produced some acclaimed (he claimed) sports documentaries, pride among which was something called The Guts and Glory Boys, which was all about Greco-Roman wrestling. Whenever a potential client (by this stage he was making most of his money charging people for the rights to use his old footage, which featured many historic sporting moments) proved reluctant to pay the asking rate, he would roar: ‘Who the f*ck do they think they are? Tell them I made The Guts and Glory Boys!’
His language veered between extremely blunt Anglo-Saxon (see above) and luvvie industry-speak. The preferred form of address was ‘darling’, though he was at pains to explain to me on my second day that ‘this is just the way we talk to each other,’ and in no way implied a sexual attraction towards or desire for me.
I tried to appear reassured by this.
The company’s other bread and butter earner was a documentary series about the Olympics, which was updated every four years to include the latest stars and locale. This series always included the word ‘gold’ in the title (the top medal awarded at these events, apparently), and, this being 1996, our latest production was called Centennial Gold – Atlanta 96.
As a runner, my duties were various. I did all of my boss’s shopping at the local Waitrose. He kept asking me to get him ‘those tomatoes that simply explode in your mouth,’ so I used to buy the biggest, juiciest tomatoes I could find in Fresh Fruit. I realise now that he meant cherry tomatoes. My least favourite memory is when I was called in for an ‘emergency’ one Sunday afternoon, obliging me to rudely abandon an old friend who had come to stay for the weekend. The emergency consisted of my picking up several empty pizza cartons from the previous night, and putting them in a bin liner. However, I also got to spend a morning in a freezing lock-up, riffling through old cans of film with the aim of turning up rare footage (I was secretly hoping we would turn out to possess the Doctor Who serial ‘Fury from the Deep’, but alas that remains on the missing list). I arranged accommodation for our director and crew over in Atlanta, and organised various interviews; I also logged an awful lot of rushes on something called digital Betacam, noting down any clips or quotations worthy of inclusion (I remember the first of these was athlete Jonathan Edwards discussing his decision to start competing on Sundays in relation to his Christianity). I got to watch the editing process on an exciting new piece of tech called AVID, which in those days took up an entire room, but today can apparently be accommodated on a memory stick, and on one occasion I was genuinely thrilled to attend a dubbing session at a Soho production house. This was a remix and updating of some old footage, so the original narrator, Bernard Z-Cars Holley, was re-hired. He turned out to be extremely affable, making conversation with me during breaks. I very much wanted to tell him that I knew he’d been in two Doctor Who serials (‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ and ‘Claws of Axos’, fact fans), but didn’t quite have the nerve.
All things considered, I enjoyed my time with the company, but had the sense that it wasn’t going to be quite the springboard to mainstream media success that I had initially imagined. In addition, my beloved was quite vocal about the effect my long working hours were having on our relationship. When an old friend, Doctor Ian Garwood, got in touch with the offer of a better paid copywriting job at the office where he was working (a video database company called Parafax – but that is another story, for another blog), I did not hesitate, and my media aspirations died for the first time. I sometimes wonder how things might have worked out had I stayed; I think there’s a good chance I’d still be buying the largest, juiciest tomatoes in Barnet Waitrose.
As a theory fuddy-duddy, my students seldom come to me for advice about finding work in industry. However, whenever a personal tutee tells me they are starting work as a runner, I soberly advise them that the main thing is to keep their motivation up.
And to make sure their boss is fully dressed at all times.
My second attempt to enter the mediascape came early in the new millennium when, having tired of the writing, I decided to try my hand as a supporting artist – or ‘extra’. I’d had a yen to do this when I first left university, but had never quite organised myself. However, equipped with a professional set of ten by eights, I registered with five agencies, three of which provided me with paying work between 2001 and 2002. My first job was the least representative: a couple of hours pretending to hold a boom microphone on the Sky1 sports drama Dream Team (just to clarify, I was playing a technician on screen, rather than actually working as part of the crew). While disappointed that my family wouldn’t get to see me (we only had terrestrial channels in those days), I was hoping I’d get to work with Stefan ‘Paul Robinson’ Dennis, who was at that time appearing regularly on the show while on lengthy sabbatical from Neighbours. Sadly, Stefan failed to show, and I left feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the whole affair.
My next role was far more substantial, playing an early 1970s hippy on the Channel 4 serial White Teeth, adapted from the Whitbread Award-winning novel by Zadie Smith. Casting against type, you say? Well, it was the hair that did it (see below). I worked on the opening instalment, ‘The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones’, which focused on characters played by Naomie Harris (long before she became Miss Moneypenny to Daniel Craig’s Bond) and Phil Davis, who grew slightly irked when the real life hippies the directors had brought in for the climactic party scene got so into the moment that they blocked his passage across the room.
I didn’t have that much to do with Phil, nor as much as I would like to have done with Naomie (though when she improvised a ‘Hi’ for her character, I – quick as a flash – improvised a ‘Hi’ for mine. This was an important character beat, for which I should have been paid extra. It’s there on film; check it out). However, I did co-star (I think that’s a fair description) in one short scene (that took over two hours to record) with the Chief Hippy, who was essayed by none other than the young Russell Brand. I had no idea who he was at the time, but although since then I have not always been the greatest admirer of his work, I have to say that he was extremely affable and down-to-earth. He made a point of asking us all our names, and then (get this) actually remembering them, e.g. ‘So on this line I should turn to Richard, yeah, and make eye contact?’ This was heady stuff for a supporting artist on his second gig, and Russell’s (he calls me by my first name, so I’m going to use his) considerate approach did not go unappreciated by his colleagues (as such we were, albeit briefly).
Afterwards, of course, Russy (I know he wouldn’t mind my using the diminutive) got into a big white stretch limo with a comely wench (as he would probably refer to her), making it clear that there was, after all, a dividing line between himself and lesser mortals.
Fair enough; he got his name on the credits, and we didn’t.
The next job was again for Sky1, this time on their sex-fuelled airline drama, Mile High. I played a passenger on what I think must have been two episodes, filmed back to back. From what I could work out, one was about a passenger who turns out to be a sex worker – and reminds the stewardess that this used to be her profession, too – while the other focused on a male passenger who has to be restrained after making a fuss. If both those storylines were from the same episode, it must have been a very eventful flight. I have no intention of watching the show again to find out, but if you decide to (for reasons best known to yourself), look out for the passenger with big hair.
Then, in the summer of 2002, I did a very strange gig at the old LWT studios on the South Bank. I can’t even remember what the show was called, but it was a sort of comedy version of This is Your Life, hosted (I think) by Iain Lee. The guest that weekend was Simon Day of The Fast Show, and one of his reminiscences centred round his adolescent obsession with Dave Hill of Slade. After this, I and three other unfortunates were forced to perform a dance routine to ‘Cum On Feel the Noize’, each of us dressed as Mr Hill – complete with wigs. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life, but I’d be extremely interested to see it again – assuming it hasn’t been used as landfill. Afterwards, Mr Day gave us an ill-deserved ‘Well done, lads.’
My last job as an extra (no, I didn’t get that much work, though I’m sure that was no reflection on my ability; I think it was the hair) was probably my favourite, appearing in the opening episode of series four of Jonathan Creek – a family viewing staple. Not that you’ll spot me. Filming took place early one cold October morning at a theatre in south London, so I wore the only winter coat I possessed at the time: a big green duffle. The fact that this was near identical in shape (if not colour) to that worn by lead actor Alan Davies in the title role honestly didn’t occur to me. For my first scene, I was seated in the audience for Adam Klaus’s (Stuart Milligan) magic show, being shot from behind. No sooner had the director called ‘Action!’ than I heard sniggering coming from the camera operator. ‘Sorry,’ he explained, ‘But, from this angle, that guy looks just like Jonathan Creek. It’s like he’s watching the show in the audience; it might confuse people.’ I was requested to discard the duffle, and had my hair tied back in an unflattering ponytail for good measure. From that point on, I was only allowed to play a stagehand, fleetingly glimpsed, and my presence was not required for the remaining days of the shoot.
However, there was an exciting offshoot from this. While having my midday bacon butty on the crew coach, I noticed producer Verity Lambert eyeing me curiously. Now, I don’t need to explain to you who Lambert was, so naturally this excited me enormously. After Alan Davies had filmed his next scene, with Stuart Milligan, director Christine Gernon approached me. ‘You’ve probably noticed us looking at you funny,’ she began. ‘How would you feel about being Alan Davies’ stand-in?”
Well, I said I’d be interested, of course.
All eyes on me, I then performed some of the same scene with Milligan that Davies had just completed. I gave it my all. Then, at the conclusion, Christine came over. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘the eyelines don’t match.’
My dreams of stardom (sort of) were scuppered in a second, and all because that beggar Alan Davies is an inch or two shorter than me.
There was an unexpected coda to this tale when, around a month later, I received a call from my agent (that does sound quite cool, doesn’t it?), asking if I’d be prepared to double for Alan Davies the following day. I explained about the height difference, but he said this wouldn’t be an issue. Unfortunately, that Friday I was completing a one-month EFL training course; it was the last day, and I could not afford to miss it. Much to the agent’s incomprehension (‘But this is for ALAN DAVIES,’ he opined), I turned the job down.
That series of Jonathan Creek was broadcast the following year, by which time I was happily teaching English over in Italy. My family didn’t bother to record it for me (most unlike them), so I only got to see it some years later when I acquired the DVD box set. I struggled to spot myself in the opener, ‘Coonskin Cap’, but was intrigued to see that episode two, ‘Angel Hair’, featured a bedroom scene between Jonathan Creek and a new love interest, played by the excellent Tamsin Grieg. The actor playing Creek in this semi-nude sequence was clearly not Mr Davies himself; could this have been the job about which I was approached? When you sign up to these agencies there is a section on the contract stating whether or not you are happy to do nude or semi-nude shoots. I said ‘yes’ to semi (I was young, and I needed the money). Did Christine Gernon (who also directed this episode) think of me after Davies baulked at getting his kit off? Eyeline matches aren’t so important when you’re lying down… More importantly, by opting to pursue my didactic muse, did I in fact do myself out of a sexy screen romp with Tamsin Grieg? Actually, it would probably have been with her body double… Anyway, the thought has haunted me ever since.
However, on reflection (and this is, after all, a time for reflection), I think it’s for the best. The path of EFL teaching ultimately led to an illustrious university lecturing career, and my present blissful status as stoical keeper of the theory flame. In general, I know my students appreciate my efforts (best Module Evaluation Questionnaire feedback this year: ‘I wish Richard was my dad’), and they always turn to me whenever they have a question about television history or the impact upon performance of changing production context (usually by email, outside normal working hours, either at the weekend, during annual leave or on bank holidays). However, when it’s industry insights they’re after, they are more likely to turn to one of my many practice colleagues, who naturally possess a treasure trove of fascinating stories. ‘What can old Richard tell us about working at the coalface?’, the kids sniff, somewhat dismissively.
If they only knew…
Well, we know.
Happy holidays, everyone!
Dr Richard Hewett is Lecturer in Media Theory at the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media. He has contributed articles to The Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Critical Studies in Television and Adaptation. His book, The Changing Spaces of Television Acting, will be published by Manchester University Press in August.