On Tuesday afternoon, after a productive drive to and from the Scottish Borders (more on that another day), I chanced upon a request by the Theatre Workshop Scotland (TWS). They had posted, what now seems like everywhere, a request for extras to take part in some filming in Fife. Well, I thought to myself, why not? My diary was clear for the first of the two days in question and it would get my out of the house. I was gutted that I would be unavailable for the other day’s filming as it would be a concert scene with Allan Stewart playing (Sir) Harry Lauder.
Truth be told, I’ve always been a sucker for getting involved in the creative arts. As anyone who knows me will confirm I have been known to make an appearance or twenty in front of television cameras or a radio microphone so am no stranger to blatant self-publicity.
After a call-back from TWS that seemed to involve every bodily measurement – well, almost all – I readied myself for an early start. Filming was to take place at the Dunfermline United Reformed Church (or as a friend put it, “The Proddy Kirk”), just along from the Alhambra where I had witnessed Morrissey some weeks ago, and I was to be ‘on set’ for 0730. I gathered together the requisite white shirt, black trousers and black shoes and did some research on the film, The Happy Lands, which is about the 1926 miners’ strike in Fife. I also managed, via the production’s blog, to have a peek at the call sheet for the next day’s filming.
After a light breakfast – I had heard there would be sustenance on set – I drove to the pick up point, a free car park about 10 minutes from the location, and joined some other “supporting artistes” (apparently preferable to “extras”) and production crew on the short bus ride to Canmore Street.
Upon arrival we were shepherded into the one of the church’s side rooms to await our instructions. This would be our “Green Room” for the day, well, most of it (more on that later). I recognised some of the cast from the film’s trailer. Some of the others in the room obviously knew each other and some didn’t. But those who didn’t soon mixed and we chatted away in small groups finding out who had done what previously. Most seemed to be either students from one of the creative industries or newcomers. I fell into both camps. Having appeared on a number of television and radio quiz shows I knew how much waiting around would be involved and I had prepared myself for this with a book, some fruit and a notepad. I resisted the temptation to bring a pack of Top Trumps, although it did cross my mind! On days like these I thank God that (a) I don’t smoke anymore as I’d have gone through two packets or (b) I have a mobile phone. What did we do before smart phones to amuse ourselves?
As it turned out, it wouldn’t be long. Matt, the 3rd Assistant Director, who would be buzzing around all day deciding which of us would do what, walked in, looked at us, thought for a moment and then pointed to three of us, including me. I was to be a soldier. Woo-hoo!!
I figured that being a soldier was way cooler than being a miner or a mere ordinary town’s person. This was it, BAFTA here I come! My excitement was short-lived. After a succession of attempts to find a kilt “overskirt” that fitted – there wasn’t one – I was despatched back from whence I came. Having already lost my dignity by standing in my pants (my best boxers – I had planned for such an eventuality) in a room full of strange women (we hadn’t been formally introduced) and sweated buckets trying on a variety of boots, socks (the thickest in the known universe), army-green garters and assorted uniform, the exasperated wardrobe lady put me out of my misery. She even measured my waist, insisting it was 45 inches! My pathetic attempts to assure her the black trousers I had on were a 42 fell on disbelieving ears and I slumped away; a burgeoning thespian career shattered at the first costume change. That was it, I said to myself, I’m going on a diet. Although not before I consoled myself with bacon, eggs, toast and the first of many coffees at the catering truck!
A conveyor belt of people came and went, returned made up, hair trimmed and in full costume. One lad was called to make up and asked if he’d mind getting his hair cut really short. With a barnet resembling a cross between a bowl cut and a mullet I think they were doing him a favour. Any Schadenfreude I felt at his misfortune was soon vanquished when I was called to take on another part and asked if I’d mind shaving off my goatee! What? This face fuzz had adorned me for the last 15 years? I had, as you can imagine, become quite attached to it. Still, we all have to make sacrifices for our art so I readily agreed. The make-up girls handed me the shaving kit so I could do it myself and off I went to the nearest basin. Minutes later my chin was naked. Justin Beiber was filling diapers the last time I saw my chin but at least now I had more hair on my head than below my bottom lip. It felt strange and I stroked my chin repeatedly.
A similar costume this time with a waistcoat, tie, overcoat and hat complementing what I had brought with me. My yellow Livestrong band, watch and other non-period items were dispatched to my bag and I was soon out on the street in front of the camera. Two of us had been selected for a scene outside the church but again, within minutes, I was bumped. Apparently I was “too posh” looking for this shot and I was back to the subs’ bench. I was beginning to take this personally! I also missed out on being on the Scottish Television News as they had been filming and interviewing around the set.
Around 12 we had to vacate our new home from home as it had been booked for a meeting, a surly woman informed me. She was taking no prisoners and didn’t care who we were! It could’ve been a Spielberg epic and she still would’ve told Steven that the sandwiches were counted. We were rehoused in the main part of the church, sitting in the pews facing a garish green organ that resembled the sort of cake you might see on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Despite regular trips for coffee, water or fresh air, the two hours there seemed the longest. Lunch was around 2pm but the catering van had shut up shop and moved to the production office at St. Margaret’s, the Catholic church opposite the town’s Carnegie Hall.
Being a local I probably could’ve walked between the two churches but I decided to go with the flow and join everyone on the convoy of mini-buses. The main cast and those with specific roles got priority and we, the extras, were last on. We didn’t really mind because we knew our place. I forget what else was on the menu because as soon I heard “sausage and mash with onion gravy” I was sold. A lack of space meant we ate standing up but again we weren’t that bothered. We finally got a seat when some of the early arrivals started to drift back. Just enough time for the umpteenth cup of coffee accompanied by a chocolate iced doughnut. Well, it was effectively our pay for the day so why not?
By the time we got to the church the bossy woman and her entourage, along with her precious sandwiches, had gone and we were back to our old room. Eventually we were all called out for the riot and march scenes, which seem to take an age but we didn’t really mind because we felt involved. Carter, the fight coordinator, gathered together the three Special Constables, including Darren, and took them through some moves and scenarios on the cobbles beside the church. Before long he had sorted out what fight sequences he wanted and we began filming properly.
My role seemed to involve going forwards towards the marauding lead Special Constable (Carter), then backwards, trying not to stand on the injured and bloodied “Mary” lying behind me. Then I would move forward to challenge Carter as he battered her prostrate body with a truncheon (his was hard plastic while the others had solid wooden ones) before I would challenge him. He would then take a couple of swings at me before I was beat a hasty retreat. There were a couple of other set pieces going on at the same time and several slow motion and half-speed run-throughs were done before we went for a take. ACTION!
It was all going well until I got a little too close to Carter and I took a whack on the thumb. It felt it alright but there were no broken bones – man’s game, run it off! Carter wasn’t as fortunate as one his Constable colleagues clattered him by mistake during the melee and cut his chin. Several shots were taken from different angles, as well as close-ups and wide shots and I, for one, couldn’t wait to see how it would all fit together on the big screen.
After a brief rest it was back outside for the last scenes of the day. We were all crammed up the Close on the opposite side of the Church from the cobbles, with some of us, including me, issued with placards. As with all good protests we had a chant to make, namely “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”. The simplest of lines you’d imagine but some of us kept forgetting them or mixing them up. Also, by the fourth or fifth take our throats were sore. I resorted to miming at one point. Top of the Pops this was not.
It was a wrap (do they still say that in the movies?). I returned my costume, said my goodbyes and headed off to the mini-bus bound for the car park. It had been a long day but a great experience and I’d met some interesting people.
When I finally got home, around 2045, I managed to see the piece about “The Happy Lands” on STV’s website. Sadly for me I was always in the wrong place when they were filming so I didn’t even get my left foot or right ear on the news!
I would like to say a big thank you to everyone at Theatre Workshop Scotland, the cast of The Happy Lands, Gerald, Darren Moore, Abi Ross (supreme runner), Kath, Maggie (for your patience, if not your tape measure), the make up team, Leeanne Tait and everyone else I met whose names I didn’t catch or forgot.
If you ever get the chance to do something like this then my advice would be to just go for it. Sure, there’s a lot of waiting around (be prepared) but when you get to do something, even dressing up, it’s fun. Okay, must dash, as my new agent has got me a part as a cadaver in Taggart…AND CUT!
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