The attentive amongst you (we know who you are) will realise that I lie to people. For money. Now, I’m not backstriking that as it is essentially true. I work as an actor and performer. I pretend for a living. I lie and you are all willing accomplices in the deceit and artifice that I create.

Right, that’s a strong start and pretty confrontational so let’s see where he’s going with this one, eh?

Look, let’s put it simply: acting is playing, it’s fibbing, it’s teasing and it’s awfly good fun. That’s why so many people want to do it. And it is fun, but it is also really quite hard work for everyone involved. And that is the point of this week – apologies this might be a little less light-hearted than normal and may veer towards academia/posturing/attention seeking but it really is a very difficult thing to do and a very difficult sector to a) get work in and b) work well in.

Now, people often say to me, ‘stop that’ but also they sometimes ask me the usual questions of why and since when?? The why part is a bit abstract, hard to get the right words for some folks, so I resort to saying, well, because I like it and I’m not completely inept at it. The since when bit, well, if we count all appearances since nursery school then let’s say since the late 1970s. I was a camel, my brother was a king. That’s the basis of his viewpoint of me laid out there.[1] Then there were the inevitable school productions, the musical based on Dracula (really, I was Master Landau, the coachman), Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters (Silvio), The Caucasian Chalk Circle (The Singer), Macbeth (Macduff actually, the true star of that show) and a bit of Am-Dram (which is a fine thing. Really. I’ve worked with very experienced professionals who don’t care as much as the am-drams did about The Owl and the Pussycat. I was the pig, the review in The Scotsman claimed it was so real that when the pig came on he could smell him (I didn’t take that personally and, to be fair, it’s not the worst review I’ve ever had)).

Then a bit of theatre in the mid-90s and I started doing TV. Bit parts but never SA work. Oh, hang on, let’s explain that. SA is Supporting Artist which is the ‘correct’ term for extras. Y’know, the ones you see but shouldn’t notice? The ones that are there to make it MORE real. The ones that have actual jobs and do that for a bit of fun. And that’s what it is for lots of people. I do know a couple of folk who work as SAs and they love it. They get to see behind the machine, as it were. They get fed, they usually have somewhere warm(ish) to hang around until they are called to set and they get the chance to see actors up close. And that can be a bit scary for people. Floella Benjamin told a story once about a child seeing her walking down the street and getting upset as, if I recall correctly, Floella had managed to get out of the TV! That resonates, it really does. It’s very odd when you see someone you’re only used to seeing on the screen in actual life. Just try not to say, “I thought you’d be taller.”[2]

But back in the late 90s, I think it was 1996, I was in a BBC production of Ivanhoe. Two lines, blink and you’d miss me (not actually sure if my scenes were included or ended up on the floor) but I did it and there we are. On my first day on the shoot (and I’ll never forget this one for a reason that will become very, very apparent quite soon) I had driven myself to location. I lived in a dark, gloomy part of Central Scotland at the time and the shoot for that day was at Doune Castle, a bright and pleasant part of Central Scotland. So there I am (and remember, this was before I had a mobile phone, in fact I’m not sure how many people did back then) arriving at the location car park (remind me to tell you how to see where things are being shot, I’ll put it in a footnote or something), being met by the 2nd AD and told I had to get straight to costume then make-up, costume will take you over and then the 2nd AD will find you and get you to your trailer and bring you some food, ok? Costume done, walked over to the make-up trailer said hello to the artist who was doing me, blinked, breathed and a tap on my left shoulder followed by a sonorous voice saying, “Good Morning, you’re John aren’t you? We’re doing a scene together this afternoon. I’m delighted to meet you, my name is Christopher. Have they got you any food yet?”

Ok. This seems reasonable enough. It is a mostly polite society and on set/on location we are all equal and we are all there to do a job and to do it as best we can and to make it as good as we can. And that voice was very polite and the tone was charming and I blinked again and managed not to say “I know! I know who you are! How could I not know how you are? You’re CHRISTOPHER FUCKING LEE! CHRISTOPHER LEE JUST INTRODUCED HIMSELF TO ME. AND FELT THE NEED TO ACTUALLY TELL ME HIS NAME!” And this is something that always happens. Nobody, and I mean nobody will ever assume that you know who they are at work. Let’s jump up to 2016 on location. I was called from my trailer to go to location for filming, guided into a very large black SUV and got in to be greeted by someone saying, “Hello, I’m Alan.” To which I said, “Hi, I’m John I’m playing the unnamed taxi driver in this one. How you doing?” And the conversation went on. Then, my new best chum, Alan Davies (for it was he, playing Jonathan Creek) said to the next person who got into the SUV, “Warwick, this is John, have you met yet?” and that’s how Jonathan Creek introduced me to an actual Ewok.[3]

It’s fair to say that I’ve never bothered the realms of fame and fortune (so far) but I can tell you that it’s not great to be recognised either. In 2005 an episode of Monarch of the Glen that I appeared in was broadcast. The following day I was in a supermarket getting some of the basics for the week (at this point all I had in the basket was milk and loo roll) when someone started shouting. Like, actual shouting at me, and everyone else in earshot (i.e. the rest of the shop), “that guy’s on telly! Him! Over there! The big guy with the beard!” And that was massively uncomfortable for me. At the time I was, well, 12 years younger than now and had no dependents (MDBJ had not been encountered yet) but it was massively uncomfortable. Roll up to a couple of years ago, I was working on a Christmas advert for a well-known supermarket and one of the other actors looked at me and asked if I was in another advert at the moment, in Scotland. This was the point where I had to sigh (inwardly) and admit that yes, I am the naked lumberjack.[4] Now that you’ve come back round I can tell you not to bother googling it as you shouldn’t find any footage of it. The reason for this is simple – the client no longer wants to use it so they’ve taken it down (and not had to pay me or the rest of the cast to keep using it).[5]

Anyway, this is a bit rambling (imagine that from me) so back to the actual point of this. Acting is difficult. Look, try this one at home. Put a small bean bag on the floor, go to the other side of the room, look at the bean bag once and then walk to it without looking at it at all and stop right at the point that your foot reaches the bean bag. Because that’s when you’re in focus for the shot. Really, try it. If you have anyone else at home with you then get them to watch you (or film you on their phone) and be honest with you about how you did. Because if you got it wrong (and you will have most likely the first time you try it), and you get it wrong by even glancing down at the bloody thing, then you’ve just ruined a shot. A shot that people have worked hard on. Make up, costume, lights, sound, camera you name it, they’ve all contributed to this shot and they want it to be as good as it can be and it all got messed up because you can’t even walk and stop where you’re meant to. The pressure the first few times you are on set is incredible. It’s terrifying. Nobody likes to make mistakes, let’s face it, but the pressure and the terror of getting it wrong in the field you dream of working in is horrendous.

But you do get a chance to practice it. All you have to do is ask if you can do a quick run to make sure you hit the mark. Nobody will be upset, in fact they’ll be glad if you do as resetting after a mistake takes time and time is not a luxury that you have if you work in TV drama production.[6] I try to make a point of telling all undergrads who want to work in TV/production on either side of the camera to be as honest as they can be as soon as they’re on set. If you’re not sure about something then ask someone. Ok, you might get a bit of a grunted sigh and so on but far better that then being the trainee/newbie who screwed up everything as they didn’t know how to do, or even worse thought they knew how to do x.[7]

And that’s where experience comes in. The more you do it the easier it gets, but only up to a certain point. I’ve had the great fortune to meet and work with some absolutely brilliant professionals who are all very grateful to be in the positions they are in and who all remember what it’s like until you get that break. Christopher Lee, well, are you jealous much? He was simply amazing all round. Tom Baker (disclaimer: he is my Doctor as I’m that age) was an absolute riot, a force of nature who followed the rules by seeing how far they could bend (and what a voice, that man is loud). I even bumped in to Lee MacDonald at a casting in that London and asked if he’d mind if I grabbed a selfie with him as my mates would be awestruck that I’d met Zammo from Grange Hill and he obliged saying, “aww, bless you, thank you so much, that was decades ago.”

Or there’s Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire in Outlander. Because she works really hard and is a delight to work with. As an explanation of this, hang on, how are you getting on with the bean bag exercise? This time add a lighting department who are all watching you. Try it again. Now try adding a camera crew and all that equipment (they’re all watching you too). Try it again. Oh, I forgot to say at the start, make sure you get picked up from where you’re staying at 6am so you can be in make-up at 0645 first. Try it again. Now add costume and the sound crew who are miking you up. Try it again. Now add in people you haven’t met but who are going to be onscreen with you that you have to get on with for a day and support each other. Try it again. Ok, got the hang of walking to that spot and getting it right every time without looking? Right, let’s get ready for a take, and if you’re Caitriona Balfe you’ll also be listening to what other actors in the scene are asking each other and you’re going to ask the director their question because you know that they need to know the answer so it doesn’t get mucked up. Try it again anyway, and then the final checks come in and we’re ready so now do it with all of that pressure and all of those people hoping that you get it right and stand in the right place. Oh, and let’s add in that you, as Caitriona Balfe, are number one on the cast list. It’s her character’s story, it’s her show, she’s the star. And you’re (certainly on season one shooting block one) in 6 days a week for about 14 hours every day (plus travel time). And you need to know new pages of script for every day and be word perfect and look perfect at all times. Nice job if you can get it, but really stupidly hard work.

Caitriona Balfe works really bloody hard on that show. Here she is putting up with me, months apart. The first photo is studio in Cumbernauld, the second is on location in Culross (and through the magic of TV it’s night-time in the second photo but it was filmed around 5.40pm. In June (I think) so not dark or night like at all). Actually, this is how awesome she is. Thanks to the non-sequential nature of filming and the time gap between filming when we did the location shoot I said to her I thought her costume was wrong. She had a scarf on which she didn’t have in the opening of episode 11 – we filmed the studio bits in March and that was the arrest in the cottage, followed by throwing them into the dungeon thing and did the exterior (the walk to the jail carriage thing) months later. Caitriona simply asked the director what I’d asked her, she’s the star she can do that, and a tiny continuity error was averted. I was told to rip it off her, so I did. And let’s face it, nobody on the internet would get annoyed at something like a continuity error, would they? Would they…

She is awesome and hits her mark everytime.

Have you mastered the bean bag yet? I remember watching Celebrity Masterchef with MDBJ once and there’s always a bit where the contestants troop in, in a line, and stop and turn to the camera. I can’t remember who the other three were that week but the only one that managed to do it without looking at the mark on the floor was Sid Owen, who played Ricky in Eastenders. Someone who knows when to stop.

Ok, this time, hit your mark and say:

This is my only line.[8]


John Ritchie spent the majority of the last twenty-five years working as an actor and performer across all media. He completed his PhD in August 2018. His thesis was written as part of an AHRC-funded project, British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound, 1927-1933. John’s main area of research is performance on screens.



[1] Look, he’s an engineer, ok? They all think only their degrees are important or real. When I told him I was doing a PhD in film he congratulated me before saying you’ll be a Doctor of Fuckallology. Then again, he’s 6’5” and around the 24 stone mark so does tend to get away with saying what he thinks instead of thinking about what he says.

[2] Here’s another odd tale. Back in 2005, Brian Cox appeared in the Royal Lyceum’s production of Uncle Varick, John Byrne’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya. We went to see the show and met him for a drink in the bar afterwards. At one point, I was standing in between Brian and Ewen Bremner and I was the one that was recognised as I’d been on the telly the night before. People, eh?

[3] Another true story here – on-set chatting to Sarah Alexander the subject of work and who we know in common came up and of course Star Wars got mentioned because Warwick Davis was in the episode (and on-set that day). You may know that Sarah Alexander’s husband is Peter Serafinowicz, who was the voice of Darth Maul but Ms Alexander said that meeting Warwick Davis was awesome as he’s in ‘real Star Wars.’

[4] I’ll spare you pictures of that one. But it was part of an organ donation campaign and everyone in it was naked. Helpfully the campaign was repeated at the start of the Autumn semester one year and you’d be amazed at how many undergrads recognised me from it. I thought they’d be too busy reading to watch my swinging an axe around and shouting ‘big ones’ (don’t ask).

[5] I’ve nearly lost count of the number of adverts/viral things I’ve done that are no longer available as the client doesn’t want to buy me out for another year, most of them aren’t earth shattering sums either and some of them were pretty good, but hey, there we go…

[6] Don’t be terrified of this but if you do get it wrong then the camera operator may well tilt down to show your feet in the wrong place. This is not an act of malevolence, it’s not to single you out, but it does let everyone who can see a monitor which department is ‘in need of improvement’ and thereby saves a lot of time and effort of people asking ‘who f*cked up now?’

[7] Take that as life advice, actually. All of us, even me, never be afraid to ask if you don’t know.

[8] Seems as good a place as any to stop, eh?