Tag Archives: bbc

How to meet your hero (and keep your childhood intact…)

bros

Bros are back, Back BACK!! and the world unites in celebration. A whole generation of 80s children (well, maybe a small sliver of a tiny British slice of one) will have been propelled back into their teenage selves at the news, and that tidal wave of nostalgic feelings will lift them up and carry them, purses open, all the way to the Ticketmaster website.

Most of us idolise performers as we grow up. We can all remember covering the walls of our childhood bedrooms with posters of our favourite singers and actors, and we’ve all fantasised about meeting them, and becoming their friends. I used to dream about meeting the Beatles (all four of them; how on earth this could have happened in 1987, I don’t know) and being asked if I’d like to join the group. Who knows what they could have achieved if I’d been there too… Of course, sometimes this strays into rather less healthy stalker territory, but for most of us, it stays within the normal bounds and is just another part of childhood. And as much as we cling to the hope that our longed-for meeting will happen and we will be whisked off to a glamorous and exciting new life, deep down we know how unlikely this is. The years roll on, and those crushes and fantasies fade away, the posters are taken down and put away with the gonks and Smurfs. Outside attending an enormo-gig at the O2 or Wembley, most of us will never share the same air as our heroes.

There will be the odd exception to this rule, of course – there’s always an outside chance you will stumble across one in the real world. I remember being in the menswear department of House of Fraser and seeing none other than Jimmy Page – Jimmy Actual Page – presumably shopping for something a bit more day-to-day than his dragon-embroidered trousers or rune-covered jerkins of yore.

jimmy-page

In that situation, there is a quick decision to be made. Do I allow the all-conquering rock God to track down that pair of comfy elasticated Gant slacks in peace, or do I barrel over there and invade his personal space, biro and crumpled Sainsbury’s receipt thrust forward ready to be signed? In this case, I left Mr Zeppelin alone, and it was probably for the best. These things can go one of two ways, after all… There can be nothing worse than launching yourself at the hero of your youth and being told to bugger off. In that brief moment, your happy childhood dreams are blown to smithereens.

However, for some of us, things are a bit different. If you somehow scrabble your way into the same profession as your childhood heroes, your chances of meeting them, and, indeed, working with them, increase massively (or dramatically, if you’ll forgive the pun). This is where things can get dangerous, as they suddenly stop being superhuman. You can even find yourself sharing a dressing room with them, and as we all know, there’s nothing more effective than that for finding out what someone’s really like. As you progress through an acting career, more and more of what you hear – or discover for yourself – shows you that all those towering  idols of your youth are just as depressingly human and normal as you are. Feet of clay, every one.

There is also the sobering thought that, even if you did want to work with those people, the chances to do so are diminishing with every passing year. I’ll never work with Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing now, will I?

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

But recently, the chance to meet and work with my ultimate childhood hero fell squarely in my lap…

Allow me to take you back in time. If you had happened to stumble across me in 1977, you would have met a small boy obsessed with ‘Dr Who’. Saturday evenings at 6.15pm would invariably find me transfixed on (or frequently, behind) the sofa, as that iconic title sequence unfolded on BBC1:

The succeeding 30 minutes were probably the most important of the week for me. I had been watching the programme for a couple of years by this point, and now, at the age of five, my devotion to the show was absolute. I loved it all: the monsters, the sets and props, the music – but at the centre of it all was the Doctor himself, as played by Tom Baker:

tom-1977

The idea of travelling through time and space with this extraordinary alien – someone funny and eccentric and brave, who could face down the most terrifying monsters with nothing more dangerous than a jelly baby, seemed the perfect life to me. Like all superfans, I had the posters on my wall, the novelisations and annuals, the long scarf (albeit brown rather than multi-coloured and stripey), and the TARDIS pencil case. I even went to our Silver Jubilee street party dressed as a Dalek:

Self as Dalek c 1977

My best-ever Christmas present came in 1979 – a signed photograph from Mr Baker himself. ‘Happy Christmas, Christopher’.
What I wanted most of all, of course, was to meet the great man. I suppose I must have thought that it was a possibility; ideally, he would enlist me to help him defeat some horrible alien creature – a Rutan, perhaps:

rutan

or a Krynoid:

krynoid-1

– but I would have been happy enough if he had simply landed his TARDIS in my back garden, offered me a jelly baby and dematerialised again. However, it was also the beginning of an awareness that, as well as day—dreaming of being a real Time Lord’s assistant, I could conceivably appear in the television programme ‘Dr Who’ as an actor. Around the same time, I saw ‘Star Wars’ and started to think about what it might be like on a film set, and to pretend to be someone else. So it was a pretty significant time as far as determining my future career was concerned. Later on, James Bond joined in, and Sherlock Holmes, and then Shakespeare popped up – and on and on…

But Dr Who was where it all started – and, for me, that always meant Tom Baker. This wonderful actor personified the character in a way that, in my opinion, no other incarnation before or since has managed to do.

Of course, Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor came to an end in 1981, and so did my fixation with the show. I moved on to new obsessions (the afore-mentioned martini-swilling super-spy being foremost amongst them). The Doctor always hovered somewhere in the background – he was even the subject of a recent painting of mine:

IMG_2739

(prints available here, print fans)… But once Tom left the show, it was never the same.

I did once actually meet the great man, on Chiswick High Road, and he patiently listened while I attempted to put into words what he had meant to me. It was just a brief encounter, but I was still thrilled by it, and I suppose I would have been happy if that had been that.

But, for once, the acting gods decided to smile upon on me, and one day not too long ago, to my amazement and joy, my agent called with an offer to appear in a new ‘Dr Who’ adventure – with none other than Tom Baker himself as the eponymous hero. I have had many calls from my agent – some of them happy, many of them not so happy – but this will probably always remain the happiest.

The offer had come from that estimable company, Big Finish, who specialise in producing wonderful new audio adventures featuring many of the best-loved genre characters and series of the past – ‘Blake’s 7’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ amongst many others. But they are best known for their original ‘Dr Who’ stories, featuring many of the surviving Doctors.

big-finish

For years, including the period when the Time Lord was off our TV screens, Big Finish has kept the ‘Dr Who’ torch alive, creating wonderful new adventures in Time and Space. Initially, Tom Baker resisted a return to the role that made him famous, but since 2012 he has enthusiastically donned the scarf once more.

When the first day of recording came, I was very nervous, more than normal. I think my nerves came partly from a fear that I would embarrass myself in front of the great man: give a bad performance, make a fool of myself by unleashing my inner fanboy – or worse, clam up and not be able to talk. Most of all, though, I think I was afraid that Tom Baker would let me down. What if he was a bully, a dreadful bigot or a monstrous egomaniac? My childhood memories would be stomped to pieces by the very man who made them: Dr Who himself.

Thankfully, none of the above came to pass. Tom was an utter delight. He was immediately welcoming to all the cast, an hilarious anecdote-teller in the green room (and generous in listening to others’ stories too), and best of all, when he was behind the microphone, he was still The Doctor. It was a strange and wonderful experience for me to hear that voice coming through my headphones – and for me to answer it. To call him ‘Doctor’ and have him respond! My five-year-old self could never have believed that one day, he would not only meet Dr Who, but actually act alongside him too…

dr-who-thedius-nook-day-2-afternoon-10

Tom Baker and Your Author, 2016

I met my hero – and he is still my hero. What a relief.

jelly-baby

Jelly baby, anyone?

EXODUS! Movement of the thespians… (or Why Actors Should Leave London)

exodus!

London. Wonderful place, greatest city on Earth. When you’re tired of it, etcetera etcetera.

I grew up a half-hour train journey outside London, and spent all of my youth dreaming of the day I could finally leave the provinces behind and arrive in the Big Smoke to make my fortune. My school made frequent trips to the National Theatre and to see the RSC at the Barbican, and my dreams were filled with thoughts of moving to London to study at drama school.

LAMDA at tower house

Happily enough, this came to pass – the Three-Year Acting course at LAMDA, from 1995 to 1998. A wonderful, inspiring time, surrounded by amazing actors who became amazing friends, spending our days immersed in the one thing we all wanted desperately to do. We used to rehearse in Chiswick, so naturally I rented a flat there – or, to be specific, a knackered bedsit. In fact, most of us ended up renting flats or rooms in West London as we trained. It seemed sensible enough – in those days, LAMDA was based in Earls Court and there was no sense in straying too far. Gradually though, as we left training and money started to be more of an issue, people started to flee to the less-expensive parts, or leave London altogether – although this often seemed to coincide with them also leaving the profession.

And there’s the rub. It has always been an accepted fact of the industry that if you want to be a working actor, you have to live in London. After all, that’s where the work is, isn’t it? All the top drama schools are there, all the best agents; it’s where all the important auditions are held, and where you’ll find the headshot photographers, the show reel and voice reel studios, Equity, Spotlight, the Actor’s Centre – Theatreland itself. How can you even contemplate being an actor if you don’t live in London?

But let’s look at some rather scary figures. According to an Equity survey from 2013 quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 56% of its members earned less than £10,000 in 2012/13. Anything less than £13,000 a year is deemed to be below the poverty line. To rent a flat in London (let’s not even bother talking about buying a house in the capital) you will be paying an average of £1,160 per month (September 2014 figures).

For many of us, something has to give, and that something is usually acting. After a few years of trying to establish yourself, the financial burden becomes too great, so you pack up and leave London, knowing that probably means leaving the profession too. It’s hard to justify persevering with such a precarious career when you see your bank balance emptying, especially as the years go by, and you become conscious that this might be your last chance to make a career change. Hard too if you have a family, or want one.

Priyanga Burford 2 by Michael Shelford

I spoke to actress Priyanga Burford recently about this: ‘I think it’s a ridiculous demand to make of people to be living in one of the most expensive cities in the world on the off-chance that they might get some work,’ she told me. Pri and her husband Tom have two children, and made the decision to leave the capital: ‘We couldn’t afford anywhere in London that was big enough or nice enough to have the family life that we really wanted. You just have to make tough choices.’

Paul Miller Photo Mark Douet

Paul Miller, artistic director of the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond, told me: ‘I think there is a lot of burn off. You can see that in the proportion of people who are in Spotlight of a certain age. The people who get burned off are the people who can’t afford to pay rent in London.’

The Stage recently quoted Justine Simons, head of culture for the Greater London Authority on this issue: “London is now the biggest it’s been… and that has put a real pressure on housing. We all know how expensive it is. It means we are facing a crisis… which is compounded by low wages.”
She added: “We don’t want a city where there are no artists or creative people, but left to its own devices, London has a habit of extinguishing creativity.”

london is changing

We thesps are not alone, of course. Across the professions, there is an exodus from London as people battle the curse of gentrification, and the rising rents and cost of living that follow it – see the London Is Changing project, set up by Rebecca Ross, MA communication design course leader at Central St Martins art school.

But if leaving London means stopping acting, who is left behind?

The media has recently become preoccupied with the apparent rise in middle- and upper- class actors, something I have written about before, and the suggestion seems to be that there are simply too many posh people being accepted to drama schools. These stories, and the subsequent eagerness of various drama school principals to parade their working class students, seem to me to be missing the point. Getting through drama school is one thing – there are student loans, part-time jobs and willing parents to help.

The real problem comes after graduation, when all those students are propelled into a harsh profession. It’s fine if you immediately get work – provided it’s well-paid, and provided it’s followed by more. Even better, of course, if you already have money behind you – and this is where the ‘class’ issue comes in. Who can afford to live from day-to-day in London, waiting for the phone to ring, unless they either have one of those elusive super-flexible day-jobs, or they are somehow liberated from the pressing worries of finding the rent and the council tax? It seems that increasingly it is only those with parents willing to subsidise them who can afford to sustain a career based in the capital.

So are we really seeing a trend emerging in which the business comes to be dominated by people from wealthy families? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a healthy and diverse artistic community to me. What about a vibrant industry, made up of people from different backgrounds, with different influences?

Some will no doubt argue that this is natural selection at work, and that those who can’t afford to be actors deserve to drop out. I mean, you chose the job, didn’t you? You know the score – if you were any good, you would be getting the work, wouldn’t you?

Let’s say you’re one of those drama school graduates who works a fair amount, but can’t stomach the cost of living in London any more. Like so many before you, you decide to pack up and leave.
But what if you don’t want to stop acting? What is it like to live outside the capital and still pursue an acting career?

sushil chudasama

I studied at LAMDA alongside Sushil Chudasama, who moved to Manchester to work (near his home town of Blackburn) shortly after we graduated. His experience is very informative, both in his frustration with the pressures of living and working in the capital, but also as a great lesson that it is possible to break away from London and still have a thriving career.

Chris Naylor How long after LAMDA did you decide to leave London?

Sushil Chudasama It was the first year after drama school, 1999. I got three jobs in a row all in Manchester, and all near to where I am originally from in Lancashire. I was not planning to leave so quickly, but as I was paying rent for a room where I hardly was, I thought it made financial sense to leave. I was planning to come back at some point but the opportunity never arose.

CN Did you have any doubts yourself about moving?

SC At that time I was excited about working as an actor – if I needed to move back to London then I would, and probably easily could. Other friends however did express that it could be detrimental to my career if I moved back ‘Up North’, but I was just thinking short term at that time.

CN Do you find the majority of your meetings are still in London?

SC With the BBC now in Manchester, I find I audition equally up North and in London. I am probably in London once or twice a month and have 2/3 auditions a month outside of London the rest of the month.

CN What effect do you think it has had on your career – for example, have you turned down auditions in London because of travel? Or have you missed out on work because you’re not London-based?

Four_Lions_poster

SC The only time it has really been an issue was when I was auditioning for ‘Four Lions’ by Chris Morris. I’d already had 5 auditions for the film and I’d had to travel to London for each one of them. I even met Chris Morris for the last of these, and filmed a couple of improvisations with him. I was equally delighted as annoyed that they wanted to see me yet again; I had already paid out about £300 in travel fees for this one job, so I asked my agent if she could ask the production company to reimburse my travel, which I thought was a reasonable request – normally if you get a recall you get your travel covered, but I’d had none of my travel reimbursed at this point. To my disgust they decided they didn’t want to see me either way – not just a no to the money, but they didn’t want to see me at all now – probably because I’d asked for my costs to be covered! That was the one time I felt discriminated against as a non-London-based actor.

CN Is there a good actors’ network in Manchester?

SC There is an amazingly supportive network in Manchester. Everyone is always posting about jobs and events on social media, and I even started a network on Facebook called mAnCTORS, which started out just for Manchester actors, but now anyone in the industry can join. The scene is very different to London. When I was in London, I found people were very cagey about what they were being seen for and what they were doing next, which I didn’t really warm to or agree with. There seemed to be a very individualistic attitude from people in London and in their attitude towards others. I find people have less time for each other, and that really turns me off. Up in Manchester, everyone is always trying to get their mates involved and putting each other up for jobs, and genuinely wants everyone else to be working. I think we have more of a social attitude towards work, and I definitely prefer that model than the London one I know. We really do believe we’re all in it together and we try and keep each other struggling together too.

CN Have you ever considered moving back?

sushil as scooter

SC With average rent hitting £1500pcm now, that option has been taken away. Even when I was on Corrie that rent would have been a stretch, so now I don’t think I will be back. When I am in London I look around and think to myself, “How are you all living here, and what have you had to give up to live in these conditions?” I absolutely love visiting London but it drains me of my humanity for others, and my money seems to fly out of my pockets quicker than I can earn it. It’s a shame, as I would consider moving back one day, but what would I have to give up in order to live that lifestyle? At the moment there is nothing that would drag me back to that. The arts scene is unrivalled there, I know, and I love that something is always going on, but I don’t think I need to be there to work, and most importantly, be content.

CN Thanks Sushil.

Let us try and develop some real respect for acting and actors. We need to tell our agents, casting directors, directors and the rest of the profession that if we choose to leave London, and thereby actually achieve a decent quality of life (a garden perhaps, a room for our child to sleep in, some fresh air) we don’t expect this to signal a change in their attitudes towards us.

Most importantly, the industry should be prepared to support us – it profits from actors, and relies on having a steady supply of talent, so it ought to do something concrete to prevent a large proportion of that talent disappearing. On a practical level, this might include things such as arranging auditions for later in the day when it is cheaper to travel into London, or expanding the practice of auditions via Skype – then everyone can stay at home and nobody has to pay for train tickets or room hire.

And for those occasions when we must travel long distances to audition, how about paying expenses? Sushil’s experience of travelling to audition for ‘Four Lions’ is a glaring example of the financial burden this can place on actors. I’ve made journeys up to York and Liverpool for meetings – I even once endured two hellish National Express trips in one day from London to Manchester to audition for a rehearsed reading – my journey home was accompanied by the sound of the man behind me vomiting into a plastic bag. Not a penny of my expenses from those trips was reimbursed.

How about more auditions outside London? In particular, let’s encourage those companies that receive a lot of public funding to be truly National, and hold auditions at different regional centres around the UK – casting days in Manchester, Glasgow or Plymouth, for example.

Perhaps this is all a fantasy. But why should acting be just a London profession for rich kids? Why should we just accept that London’s dominance as the centre of the acting industry can never be challenged, and that if you really want to be an actor, you have to live here and take the financial hit?

Actors should leave London, if they want. We shouldn’t have to put up with living beyond our means, probably in less-than-desirable accommodation, or if we do leave London, be forced to shell out to travel back in for auditions all the time. We should be able to find a better quality of life, and still pursue the job we love.

The Comeback Kids – # 1: Priyanga Burford

Priyanga Burford by Michael Shelford

Actors are much like sharks. If a shark stops swimming, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and drowns. In the same way, if an actor stops acting, his career dries up.

Except, of course, this is nonsense. Plenty of sharks seem quite happy to laze about on the sea bed while delicious-looking fish swim by, only to resume their sharking activities wholeheartedly when so inclined. Might the same be true of actors? Is it possible to take time out of an acting career – even a few years – and revive it successfully? Could such a hiatus even be beneficial?

I recently had a break of my own to help look after my father, who has dementia, and having returned to the fray I was keen to speak to other actors who have made a similar choice.

Hair LAMDA 1998 - Me and Pri

Priyanga Burford and I were in the same year at LAMDA (class of 1998). Since graduating, Pri and her husband Tom have had two children, Danny and Oscar. After taking time to raise her sons, Pri has made a successful return to the acting world, with TV appearances in shows such as ‘Silent Witness’ and ‘Veep’. Earlier this year she took the lead role of fictional UKIP candidate Deepa Kaur in the Channel 4 spoof documentary ‘UKIP: The First 100 Days’, and is currently in rehearsal for the Sheffield Crucible production of Lucy Prebble’s play ‘The Effect’. I wanted to speak to Pri about choosing to step back from acting to raise her family, and her experience of returning to the profession after a long time away.

CN So, how did it work? Were you intending to have children and take a break, or did Danny come along and you just…

PB I didn’t have a plan. We knew we wanted to have children. I think I had a slightly unrealistic idea that it would somehow all fall into place without too much trouble. Because of course, before you have children you can’t know what it’s like – I hadn’t accounted for the physical tiredness and all the rest.

CN How long had you been acting after LAMDA when you had Danny?

PB Four years. I went back far too soon to do things, I really did, I think I went a bit nuts, because your whole life just turns upside down and you become a different person. You have this different identity suddenly as a parent, and there’s this whole other part of you. So I wasn’t ready to go back to work, then when I did, I felt like an alien and it went quite badly.

CN What did you do?

PB I did short film, which I had a very small part in, but even the small part was too much.

CN Did you think there was an element of panic that things were slipping away and that you had to do something?

PB Yes, there was definitely that: if I disappear for five minutes, everyone will forget who I am and I will never be able to act again. And nobody contradicted me, actually, nobody professionally said to me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine, go away and be a mum for a bit, and when you’re ready, come back’. My agent certainly didn’t say that – he’s not my agent any more – and I wish he had, because he knew the way I was feeling.

CN Can you remember what his reaction was when you told him you were going to have a child?

PB Well, he was delighted, but I remember him saying to me the first time I went to see him after we got married, ‘Don’t have kids, not yet,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, you’re really running my life here’. So yeah, I know I went back too early, but I’m very glad that I did the little bits I did, even auditioning.

CN What would you audition for?

PB Just little tiny bits of telly – a scene or two in ‘The Bill’ or something like that.

CN And radio?

PB Yeah, that was brilliant – when I was pregnant, I had the contract with the Radio Drama Company to cover me over the time when I was, you know, unfilmable, and I couldn’t be insured.

Priyanga Burford and Fenella Woolgar in Ambassador B on BBC Radio 4

CN Thank God for the BBC, as ever.

PB Exactly. It was just really hard – and I think it’s moments like that when you really say to yourself, ‘How much do I actually want this?’ I remember trying to take a little baby in a pushchair on the tube, up the steps of the underground station, and actually by the time you’ve arrived at the meeting you’re exhausted… The meeting seems like a complete sideshow, and of course it’s what you’re there for. But the big achievement, I started to realise, was actually getting both of us there, getting ready, learning the lines for the meeting, and getting home safely. So I didn’t get a lot of work during that time.

CN So you had in your mind a return to the profession?

PB Yes, if they let me!

CN Because then you had another son…

PB Yes, five years later I had Oscar. And in that interim period again it was just dribs and drabs, so actually most of my thirties has been about having and rearing these two boys, with a bit of acting thrown in.

CN But it’s a good use of your thirties, isn’t it?

PB Yeah, making people, that’s good! But at the time I didn’t see it that way, at the time I did panic. There wasn’t anyone saying to me, ‘No no, it’s fine, people have kids, it’s life’. There was always rather this impression that actors don’t have lives, they don’t have children, relationships – you know, they’re just machines.

CN It’s a strange thing isn’t it, it’s almost like actors are children – that we aren’t suited to a life of adult responsibilities.

PB There’s certainly a part of an artist which is a child, because they need to play and be vulnerable and open, so you need to have those child-like elements, but they need to be encased in an adult, professional framework, and that comes with maturity. That doesn’t mean necessarily age, but perhaps maturity of attitude – you know, I could have been 26 and had a mature attitude, I just didn’t. Actually, half of what you do is maintenance and work creation, keeping your networks going and all that, which is something I learnt from my brother, who’s a freelance journalist. I spoke to him about his life, and realised when he’s not working, when he’s not being paid to write something, the rest of his time is pitching ideas and sniffing around to see what’s out there.

CN Was there a point when you thought I could leave this, I could stop?

PB Yes, I became very angry, very demoralised, and the only place that led me was to more of the same, just feeling worse and worse, angrier and angrier and I had no one to shout at.
I’d fallen into this trap of throwing my hands up and going, ‘Oh well, it’s all just a kind of boys’ club’. I had started to ignore the resources there out there, so I got back in touch with Spotlight and actually read the emails they were sending me. One of the turning points for me was a casting symposium at the BFI with Lucinda Syson and Reg Poerscout-Edgerton.

Lucinda Syson by Sean SmithReg Poerscout-Edgerton

The atmosphere was very professional and I thought, ‘This feels right’ – it’s really good for the soul to go to something like that. I hadn’t realised, after taking time out, how much the industry has changed – they will get people sending their iPhone video stuff in from all over Europe and America and Australia for the same role. So you are competing globally. Just talking to my agent today – in America it’s far less common for people to be in the room; they might sift through 500 tapes from all over the world for a TV series. That was a big eye-opener for me.
I feel like the industry’s progressed a bit; it does demand that when you walk into a room, you’re ready, you’re prepared and you’ve done your homework.

CN It’s a lot more professional.

Shonda Rhimes by Patrick Ecclesine

PB Yes, particularly in America. You hear about someone like Shonda Rhimes, who is a massive showrunner over there for ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ and ‘Scandal’, and she just sacks people. She’s not having any actor shit, any egos; she’ll go, ‘OK, ‘bye then. You’re not doing this to this piece of work’. And I think the more professional our industry gets, the better for everybody. People won’t tolerate that sort of behaviour any more. I suppose I’m harking back quite a few years, but you can’t just turn up pissed, having had a couple of fags and just sort of create.

CN Do you think having taken some time before you returned to the profession – I wonder if that was useful as a sort of recalibration, a re-adjusting of your attitude?

PB Definitely, I’m really glad I had that time, because I see it almost as professional development. I think it’s true of most artists actually, that the richness of your life experience does feed your art, and those years that I was doing other things – life stuff – has meant that I’ve got a very different perspective on what I do.
I used to always feel slightly ashamed of being an actor, that it was a slightly laughable thing to do with one’s life, and actually having taken that time out, spoken to other artists, having time to think about my own attitude to my whole industry and a re-examination of why I’m in this in the first place, I’ve found it really strengthening. And I learnt more about my process.

CN Doing something as important as raising a family, I wonder if that shift in your life allows your perspectives to shift as well? The sort of things we get hung up about, like a bad audition or a bad rehearsal, does it make it easier to deal with those things?

PB I don’t know if it makes it easier, but it certainly stops you from indulging it. It still hurts, but it becomes more like a bad day at work, because you have kids and you realise that you cannot bring it home to them, because why should they have to deal with it? It’s not their problem at all. So it’s still upsetting and frustrating but you have to learn to put that away. You can’t be grumpy and stomp around, and I certainly think that takes you out of yourself in a very healthy way.

CN And maybe it allows you to truly take responsibility for choosing this job – the buck has to stop with us, doesn’t it?

PB Yes, no one’s holding a gun to your head – at the end of the day, you don’t have to do this.

CN As you said, the rewards, maybe not financially, but the rewards from the work are so great.

PB I think that’s why people get so pissed off with actors when they start moaning. Because really, who else gets to follow a passion – or even know what their passion is?

Luvvies - Jeremy Irons

CN I wonder if you come to realisations when you take some time out that you wouldn’t otherwise have come to? So it’s actually a way of appreciating the job more.

PB Yes, and I have more of a sense of who I am as me, rather than just as an actor. There’s a richness that’s happened with life experience and having kids – just getting older – that has built a lot more confidence to be able to walk into a room and do the job, without all the extraneous useless thoughts of, ‘Oh maybe everyone thinks I’m crap, maybe the director’s regretting casting me’. That just really doesn’t happen to me any more. I used to feel very unsure of myself early in my career. After drama school, when you get into a professional context you’re so keen to prove yourself, you’re so acutely aware of the fact that, ‘I can’t piss this director off because they’ll never work with me again’, and actually that takes away from the really important process of trying stuff out and failing. You need to have confidence to be able to say to a director, ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing here, you’re going to have to help me’.

CN Which ties in with the idea of understanding that it’s work – that discipline that you were talking about, being able to balance that play with the serious point of, ‘There’s an opening night’, or someone’s going to say, ‘Action!’ at some point.

PB The more I thought about it as paid work, that’s a really good way of getting over yourself, because you just think, ‘Look, they are paying me to do this, so I’ve just got to shut up and get on with it. No one gives a shit if I’m feeling insecure’. And why should they?

CN I’m sure most productions don’t grind to a halt if an actor can’t do it. There’s always another actor.

PB I’m about go up to Sheffield and do a play called ‘The Effect’ by Lucy Prebble. I haven’t actually done any theatre in 5 years, and that’s because I’ve had to say, ‘No I can’t, because my kids are too young and I just don’t feel like I can leave the family at this point’. There’s something quite empowering about being able to say that – you feel as an actor that you have to say ‘Yes’ to everything.

The Effect poster

CN How are you feeling about it? Will you be attempting to commute in any way?

PB No, I’m going to live up there and they’re coming up for weekends. That’s the other thing, you’ve got to have a partner who gets it, and Tom really does get it. We just work as a big team: ‘Is this going to work?’ – and you try it and see. Professionally I’m a little bit nervous about going back on stage after 5 years, but also it’s a new phase in our family life, it’s the first time I’ve been away away – you know 2 months, it’s a long time.

CN It will be an interesting test to see how you can accommodate everything.

PB And actually I couldn’t do this if I hadn’t done telly at the back end of last year, because theatre wages are still so rubbish, I could not have afforded child care at all. I think that’s another way things have changed; it’s why so many TV actors are on the stage, because how else can you afford to live on theatre wages unless you’ve got money?

CN It’s never easy, is it? It’s never going to be easy, but you have to find a way to make it work, if you want it to.

PB You do, you have to find a way. That’s what I said to my agent – if it’s worth it we’ll find a way. I think the whole thing is about just working bloody hard.

CN And it’s a good way to spend your life, isn’t it? You may as well.

PB You may as well, because there are so many people who hate their jobs, who would give a limb to have my problems. The other thing about taking some time out was the people I met with ‘ordinary jobs’ who really hated them, or going to work was so perfunctory. I have never woken up for a day of my work and felt anything other than really excited about what I was off to do, and I got a true sense of how rare that is and how incredibly fortunate I am.

‘The Effect’, directed by Daniel Evans, opens at Sheffield Studio Theatre on June 25th 2015.

Interview With The Director: Paul Miller – part two

 

Paul Miller 2 - Mark Douet

CN As artistic director you must get a lot of submissions all the time. How do you deal with that? Is there anything you try to do to open your doors more widely, to bring people in?

PM What we’ve done in the last six months is we now put all our casting breakdowns on Spotlight, so anybody can submit things. We’ve done several days of open auditions – both at the offices of Spotlight that were organised by Equity, but we’ve also done our own here, for general meets, not for a particular play. So we feel like we’ve made good strides towards opening it up more. It’s so difficult though, because we are a small team. Just the business of putting plays on is amazingly labour-intensive and time-consuming, and it is always a matter of great anxiety that we cannot respond individually to all the submissions we get, we just don’t have the manpower. If people write in and don’t get a response, all I can say we keep everything very carefully and we do look at everything.

paul slater mail
CN Were you prepared for the level of guilt that all Artistic Directors must have?

PM I think so. The big subsidised companies have more responsibility to take care of people, and by and large tend to be quite good.

CN But it’s a balance, isn’t it? It’s a very desirable location, the Orange Tree, although it’s a very small theatre. In the past Sam [Walters, the previous artistic director] used to do plays with enormous casts, but he would always employ the same actors.

sam walters orange tree
PM He made a positive virtue of working with a sort of informal company, which I think he strongly believed in. I think it’s partly generational: for his generation of directors that was always a dream and a goal – The Company, and I think so much of what he was about was because he remembered the really good aspects of Rep, and he used that energy creatively. That’s partly why the Orange Tree exists at all.

CN There’s been no repeated casting?

PM I think in the seven productions we’ve done so far, I don’t think anybody’s come back, and that’s in part because we’ve had different directors come in, the plays have had different requirements. It’s a rhythmical thing – it seems right at the moment and in due course people will start to come back and the theatre will acquire a personality.

CN It’s an unfair profession, isn’t it, the acting profession? It’s just intrinsically unfair. There are so many people who want to do it, and so few jobs, it can never be a democracy, can it? There’s an element to it where at some level it’s like a fashion show – there are things beyond your control that are the reasons you get cast; things that make you attractive that are unquantifiable.

PM It’s true, there’s an almost feudal aspect to it, sort of like dockers queuing up in the morning to see if they’re picked to work that day.

CN In the ‘50s and ‘60s they used to go to their agents and sit outside – ‘There’s nothing for you today’.

PM Yes, it is a brutal career and that’s why people want to form companies – they do so in order to protect themselves from these sorts of iniquities. That aspect of our trade can be unhealthy and uncreative.

CN And it can’t really be changed can it?

Stratford-RSC-rear-view-with-geesehomerholby
PM Well, like all things there are strengths and weaknesses. I have a friend who I spoke to just yesterday – he’s just done a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, where he was in a new play and two Shakespeares, he’s in the process of writing an adaptation of Homer and he’s going up for a ‘Holby City’. So it’s a snapshot of a British actor’s life, who’s Doing-Quite-Nicely-Thank-You. That is an unimaginable thing for a German actor. A continental European actor doesn’t have that thing where they go from a bit of popular television, to being in Goethe, to then doing a voiceover… They have a company system, it’s all heavily subsidised, and if you are part of those subsidised companies, of which there are many, that’s what you do. And you can often see astonishingly rich, in-depth character acting in companies in Germany as a result. What they don’t have is British actors’ flexibility, pliability, ability to work in very different ways very quickly.
And that is why, in my view, British actors often do very well in America, because of that easy ability to do anything. Which is actually a product of that brutality we’re talking about – it actually produces that as an upside and thus can make American directors love working with British actors, because of that ability to go, ‘Oh, you want me do to it differently? I’ll do it like that’, whereas an American actor struggles. So I suppose there are aspects of the way we work which feel very brutal, but we also have to remember that it produces a certain liveliness which is an asset.

CN And I suppose it helps in auditions, in that you can have a casting in the morning for an advert, and a Strindberg in the afternoon, and you need to be able to turn it on for both.

PM Yes, and by and large people are very skilled at doing that.

Anthony Hopkins Alex be Brabant

CN I’ve done very little screen acting but I love it when I do, because it is so focused. I remember reading about Anthony Hopkins, who of course is the great master of screen acting, and he was talking about being able to marshal his resources so well that he was able to just switch it on; he could focus completely and just turn it on when he needed it.

PM Just the other day, a very experienced senior actress was telling me a story about her daughter, who’s just starting, and had she had done a couple of days filming – she was complaining, ‘Oh, it was terrible, I was waiting for hours and hours, the whole day I was waiting to do my little bit. It’s a disgrace!’ And her mother said, ‘No, the waiting is what you’re paid for – the acting comes for free.’

CN That’s great, I’ve never thought about it like that – the acting is the reward.
I‘ve been thinking about London. It’s an impossibly expensive place to live in. Can you conceive of a time when the media and the theatre will be spread more across the country, or will London always be the centre?

london
PM I think it’s impossible to imagine a situation when we are not, as a country, focused on London. It has such a massive history behind it, and geographically, I feel we are always going to have that with us. I notice that politically now there are these big moves to talk about Northern powerhouses, and I think that’s all great and healthy – there does seems to be a lot going on in Manchester, and I think we will see more of that; with the BBC being stationed in Salford, there’s a sense in which the centre is shifting – but I think London will always be with us. I think the general election result has given us a very vivid X-Ray of a sense in which, politically and socially, culturally, London is forming a giant bubble of its own. One of the reasons that everybody was taken by surprise by the election result is because in London we were all busy talking to ourselves, and not really realising that out there, a whole different thing has been going on. We’re entering this period now where it’s going to be very difficult to work out how the country finds a way of talking to itself.

CN And culturally, creatively, there’s no money to keep you in the profession – are we going to end up with a casting crisis for people in their late 20s and into their 30s?

PM I think there is a lot of burn off, I think that’s exactly what happens. You can see that in the proportion of people who are in Spotlight of a certain age. The people who get burned off are the people who can’t afford to pay rent in London without a stable income.

sheffield theatres
CN Is that something that regional theatres can capitalise on? Do you think there should be a shift away from the capital? You spent a lot of time in Sheffield – did you cast down in London, or did you cast in Sheffield?

PM It must be the case that 90% of Equity is based in London, so inevitably that’s where you end up casting from. There are some people based in Sheffield and they have worked in the Crucible, but it’s difficult. I can never remember the exact rules and numbers about subsistence, but if you’re in Sheffield for instance, you budget because you know you’re going to have to pay subsistence to actors who are by and large London-based, and you still have to pay if they’re Manchester-based, so there‘s no great incentive at a financial level.

CN You have a greater pool of people to cast from in London.

PM All the incentives are for you to look to London.

CN It’s terrible isn’t it – you’re told you have to live in a place that is too expensive to live in, in order to carry on working.

PM And actors face a pressure from their agents, it seems to me, to not leave London – to not go and do a play in Sheffield because you’ll be out of London for two months. ‘Imagine what will happen – if that advert came up, you wouldn’t be able to do it!’

CN I think there is a pressure to shut out parts of your life and experiences you could have had, because you’re frightened to miss the job – don’t go on holiday, don’t have a family; you can’t afford to buy a house because you can’t leave London. You shut yourself off from life experiences which might actually be detrimental to your acting.

PM It’s true, those are all dangers.

circus poster
CN Actors have always been outsiders though, haven’t they?

PM They have. It’s a conundrum, because life should be fairer, it should be better; we are artists who deserve to earn a living. There should be good conditions – you know, bad conditions don’t create good art. And yet we all, one way or another, ran away to join the circus, and having joined the circus, we love complaining about the elephant shit.

CN A suitable ending, I think. Thank you Paul.

Singing The Unsung #2 – Emily Raymond

emily

I’d like to highlight the work of a fine actress, Emily Raymond, who I have just seen in Carl Grose’s wildly entertaining ‘Grand Guignol’ at Southwark Playhouse.

The play is a delirious and blood-soaked homage to the French theatrical tradition of graphic horror plays, and takes us backstage to explore the creation of these bloody thrillers. Emily Raymond plays the theatre’s stunningly glamorous queen of gore, Paula Maxa – ‘the most assassinated woman in the world’. It is a ripe and very funny performance, and gives Emily the opportunity to showcase a truly magnificent, full-throated scream, to rival even the great Fay Wray.

grand guignol

She also demonstrates a skilful handling of Grose’s heightened language and a very physically adept comic sensibility, even when the most appalling things are happening to her – eye-gougings, throttling, reanimation etc.

It was only after the show that I remembered working (very briefly) with Emily on an episode of ‘Tales From The Old Bailey’ for the BBC, in which she gave a beautifully poised and dignified performance as Emmeline Pankhurst, a world away from the hysterical excesses of ‘Grand Guignol’. She is clearly an actress of great versatility.

‘Grand Guignol’ runs at the Southwark Playhouse until November 22nd.
http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-large/grand-guignol/

A Privileged Position?

Isis_top_hat

Next Sunday there will be a big toff-shaped gap in the television schedules – ‘Downton Abbey’ has come to an end. But all those upper-class types released back into the wild should have no problem finding their next gig. It seems there is a healthy appetite at the moment for posh actors playing posh characters in posh stories.

There has been a lot of debate about whether this means that acting itself has become – well, posher too. Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s Controller of Drama Commissioning, noted that ‘acting has become a very middle-class profession’, and Sir Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Arts Council England, says that public school-educated actors are ‘out of all proportion’ to those from less privileged backgrounds.

RADA-foundation-class-in--001

On the other hand, Edward Kemp, Principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, disputes this, pointing out in The Independent recently that ’36 per cent of last year’s intake of students at RADA came from families earning less than £25,000.’ He makes the claim that ‘there is absolutely no evidence that people from poor backgrounds aren’t coming to drama school.’ This is despite RADA charging fees at the upper limit, i.e. £9,000 a year. Mr Kemp also notes that his school is receiving more applications from ‘working-class’ students than at the start of the century.

To this I say: Fine – students from varied backgrounds may somehow find the money to pay their way through three years at drama school, but what happens next? I would be surprised, to put it mildly, if those students from low-earning families were able to cope on an actor’s salary.

Obviously actors need to be supported when they start out, and many colleges offer generous bursaries to help less well-off students, but the real problems can begin when those students are thrust out into a harsh profession. I would suggest that this is when actors really need help.

hair

It is increasingly expensive to embark on a career in the theatre. Many drama schools are based in London, the most expensive city in the UK, and we are told that we must stay here once we graduate in order to develop our careers. But the reality of attempting to survive on an actor’s wage can be absolutely prohibitive to many people contemplating a life in the theatre. I graduated from LAMDA in 1998, in a class of 29 people. Sixteen years later, probably less than a third of us are still pursuing acting in earnest. This is no great surprise; I’m sure the story is the same with every graduating year from every drama school. And things weren’t so pricey in my day, sonny.

The average monthly rent (note I don’t say mortgage repayment) for a one-bed flat in London is £1211 (January 20114 figures), whereas, according to the most recent Equity survey from December 2013, more than 56 per cent of its members earned less than £10,000 a year. This is officially classed as below the poverty line. Once you factor in utility bills, council tax, food, travel – it isn’t very surprising that many actors are forced to give up after just a few years. Faced with these obstacles, acting can start to look like an expensive hobby.

mckellen_1633697c

So who can afford to act? While I’m sure there are some actors lucky enough to go from job to job, peppering meaty stage roles with a bit of lucrative film and TV work, and paying their way from acting alone, I would respectfully suggest that this is not the norm. Most actors have gaps between roles which have to be filled with ‘day jobs’, and unfortunately the temptation to start relying on those jobs and say goodbye to acting can be all too powerful, especially if you want to start a family, save to buy a house, or just go on holiday once in a while – you know, normal stuff.

Some might say this is theatrical Darwinism at work, and that those who choose to step aside don’t have the necessary resilience, commitment or, dare I say, talent to succeed. But I’m not sure this is the whole truth. Far too many seriously talented people are lost to the profession because they simply can’t afford to support themselves.

maman

In recent years, however, I have noticed that many of the younger actors I have worked with seem not to be struggling that much. Indeed many own flats and cars. These are actors in their early twenties who can afford to buy property in London and, at the same time, are somehow able to take low-paid jobs in one of the lowest paid professions there is. And afford to buy lunch every day from Pret or Whole Foods – if I’m working in the theatre I survive on a packed lunch of a ham sandwich, a yoghurt and – my one concession to fine dining – one of those lovely Bonne Maman madeleines. Well, it can’t all be self-denial, can it?

On one recent theatre job I was thrilled to find that I could walk to work (40 minutes each way) thus saving myself nearly £30 a week in bus fares. But I still struggled to find any spare cash after paying the rent and bills. I have generally attempted to be pure in my approach to acting, never signing on the dotted line for a permanent ‘proper’ job, always ready to drop any other work as soon as acting comes up, always ready to say yes to anything, even in the face of red bills and a burgeoning overdraft. The result of this is that whenever I get an acting job, the over-riding emotion I often feel is not joy, but relief, much like the drowning man who manages at last to haul himself onto the life raft. But I wonder if it’s different for those Pret-munching young actors. Many of them are privately-educated and come from well-off middle-class backgrounds, so just don’t feel the same petty money worries.

large_elephant_man_blu-ray9

Now this is not a class war; I am not saying that working-class actors are better than upper-class ones. John Gielgud is my hero, and you couldn’t get posher than him. And anyway, I sit squarely in the very middle of the middle-class. No, this is about money, as it always is. It’s a simple fact that those who are able to afford an actor’s life are the ones whose careers will last longest. This could be because they work a lot, or perhaps they just don’t mind sacrificing everything else for their art. But more and more these days, it seems to be because they either have money already, or they are subsidised by their families. Lucky for them, but not so lucky for an art form that is meant to be about representing all facets of society.

Of course, the acting profession has never had enough work to sustain the number of people who want to be part of it; it’s always a minority of each graduating year that is able to maintain a career for life. But now that we have a higher number of drama graduates joining the profession than ever before, it does beg the question – do drama schools and the wider industry bear some greater responsibility to the acting community? Shouldn’t there be a more established mid-career support structure in place?

Of course we mustn’t go blindly into the profession, expecting money and fame to be drawn to us by the inexorable magnetic tractor beam of our talent. Just to be able to act for a living, even some of the time, is a privilege in itself. But after three years of very expensive training it sometimes seems as though the business is happy to leave us to the vagaries of fate. There is often so much clamour to identify the hot young talents, to be known as the school that produced the big new stars or the casting director that discovered them, that if you are an actor who doesn’t fit into that category, as most of us don’t, you are left to fend for yourself.

Christopher-Lee-Dracula-006

Actors are the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. Surely those parts of the business which feed off that blood supply should feel obligated to do what they can to keep it flowing.