I started writing fiction again, after a few years’ gap, after a ‘big’ birthday – a time when many people take stock of their lives and wonder if they should make ‘big’ changes. I had two young children and my work as a freelance copyeditor allowed me to be flexible around their school routines and holidays, so a career change wasn’t a feasible option. However, the decision instead to kick-start my writing led eventually to a further decision – to self-publish the results.
That was in 2017, and it has led to changes in various parts of my life, as detailed often in this blog over the past couple of years. Most of my income still comes from my freelancing, which now allows me the flexibility to travel to events across the UK to give talks and readings and sell my books. I also decided a year or two back that, with my children’s increased independence, it was time to pursue another interest.
|Bosworth medieval festival|
My early teenage dreams involved two possible careers – writing and acting. I loved films, TV, theatre as much as I loved books. At home I scribbled stories or gazed at the icons of the silver screen shrunk to a height of a few inches on our family television; outings to the cinema or school trips to the theatre were less-affordable, but hugely enjoyed treats. I enthusiastically threw myself into every aspect of English department drama productions at school. But stage-management and lighting became my domain when it sadly became apparent that perhaps my talents didn’t lie upon the stage itself.
Having said that, I still recall the thrill at seeing my name on the casting sheet of our very last sixth-form production – next to the very role I coveted: the Fourth Tempter in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. That may sound like the infamously insignificant ‘fourth spear-carrier’ in stage productions, but anyone who knows the play may recognize it as the plum role after St Thomas Becket himself – the insidious voice that tempts him ‘with [his] own desires’, encouraging him to actively seek martyrdom for personal glory. Not much of a claim to fame, perhaps – although a minor one comes from lighting school productions starring a certain Alex Kingston, who herself went from playing the Third Knight in an earlier production of Murder to the heights of the Royal Shakespeare Company, ER and Doctor Who! But I digress…
|Alex Kingston as River Song (copyright Denofgeek.com)|
Acting may not have been for me, but my fascination with film-making continues. For a long time I’d toyed with the idea of becoming a ‘supporting artiste’ for films and TV – otherwise known as an ‘extra’ – not so much for the chance to see myself on screen as to find out just what happens on a ‘shoot’. Is it really as it’s portrayed in Ricky Gervais’s eponymous sitcom? The chance finally arrived about eighteen months ago when I happened upon a casting call for extras for a film being shot not far from where I live. I signed up with the agency doing the recruiting, congratulating myself on being self-employed and therefore offering the flexibility they needed.
An exciting new world appeared to be opening up. A world of casting calls for an intriguing variety of productions – all of them secret. (I think I can now reveal some of the titles, but during filming you have to sign up for confidentiality. No phones or photos on set, no posting anything identifiable on social media.) Did I want to be put forward for the role of a housekeeper in a period drama? Or that of a ‘dock person’ or sailor in the same production? (I received a total of nine separate calls for that particular drama – and given that it turned out to be about a cross-dressing Victorian landowner, perhaps inviting a female extra to be a nineteenth-century sailor wasn’t as far-fetched as it first appeared!) A factory worker for a tea advert? A Polish woman in a World War II drama? An office worker in a major new science fiction series?
|Suranne Jones in Gentleman Jack|
Flexible I may appear – but that’s not how it’s turned out in the world of supporting artists. The calls are often last minute: ‘Can you make a costume fitting this afternoon in Liverpool, for filming tomorrow?’ read one text that arrived when I was driving up the A1 to drop my student daughter in Newcastle; ‘Can you get to this airfield on the outskirts of York tomorrow at 6.30 am?’ And far too often they’ve clashed with family activities or book promotion events (that housekeeper role – it had to be the same weekend as Bosworth medieval festival…). Sometimes, I’ll be honest, I’ve just not fancied driving in the dark to and from a winter’s shoot in an unknown town.
So extras work hasn’t quite provided the new string to my bow that I’d hoped, although the availability requests still trickle in. The latest near-miss was being shortlisted for a certain popular series about the royal family – on the weekend when an old friend asked to visit to take her daughter to a nearby university open day. Old friendship and the chance to catch up won out – and then relief when Storm Ciara hit. At least I didn’t have to fight through its devastating winds and rain to try and find the shoot location in early morning darkness.
To date I’ve had just one day’s filming, but it has to be said it was fascinating – and has certainly whet my appetite for more. I was one of a hundred extras, mostly female, playing workers in a Lancashire cotton mill. All kitted out in authentic corset and wooden clogs (neither of which would be seen, even in any close-ups), I hung around chatting to other extras about their various filming experiences while periodically being called to hair (authentic bun – despite being out of sight beneath an authentic cap), make-up (a dusting with dirt), breaking down (where the freshly laundered skirt and blouse were smeared with mud for that authentic millworker look), a health and safety talk, and finally rehearsals and filming itself in the historic mill (now a museum). With the looms going full tilt and a hundred workers performing their choreographed roles, it was quite an awe-inspiring sight. And one I estimated might be seen for all of about 30 seconds in the final drama – given how long the principal actors took to walk the length of the mill delivering their lines.
|Queen Street Mill, Burnley|
It was 35 seconds in the end – so I wasn’t far off. I watched it on the BBC I-player at Christmas with half an eye on the time counter – twice, just to be sure. And of course, just to check that there really was no chance of spotting me in the distance – let alone my clogs or corset. All that effort, all those people, all those once-immaculate costumes, all that (fantastic) catering – for such a fleeting glimpse. To be sure, some footage was used in the background of a longer scene in the mill office, and the principals also shot a ghostly scene with the looms working but no one operating them. But overall it was a fascinating insight into just how much work and effort (and people and money) go in to filming a complex drama – and I got paid reasonably well for what was mostly sitting around chatting – it definitely felt like money for old rope.
I won’t be giving up the day job any time soon for either of my new ventures, but I’m very much enjoying the new experiences they’ve brought. Who knows what might be round the corner with either of them? I’m currently waiting to hear if I’ve landed the part of a ‘mourner at a high-end funeral’ in what may be ‘the action film of the year’. Please keep your fingers crossed for me!
Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, r and The King’s Man, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name