Tuesday, 31 August 2010

'We're not being paid enough for this', Trials of an Extra Part 3, Garrow's Law

I rise at 4.45 pm on 19 August 2010 - on this day at 10.10 am it will be 63 years since I was born in the Southern General in  Govan.

I am going to be an extra in the final episode of the 2nd series of Garrow's Law, a BBC courtroom drama set in the 1790s. I cycle down to Partick railway station to catch the 6pm train to Dumbarton and the  BBC  River City set. Getting off the train I buddy up with  another extra from the same agency. . .

. . .for the 25 minute walk to the site. I get into costume, hang about the extras portokabin  and meet other extras.  The portokabin is pretty full and warm and pretty damn claustrophobic. Portokabin Fever. The crew members who look after extras  always prefer it if we stay in the portokabins or buses or whatever so they know where we are. Extras are prone, like the Duke of Wellington's working class,  to a lot of useless wandering about, and it must be like this -

So I wander about around the portokabin and chat to others coming out for a fag or to make a phone call. This group has been together since Monday and there will be friendships and feuds simmering away - best not to get involved, it can be messy

The morning stretches on. An Assistant  Director comes into the portokabin to lecture us on our group motivation for the scene. A script is taped to the wall with our responses highlighted. One person asks if we should respond 'like EastEnders'. No we shouldn't: ''I don't want EastEnders.'  Also apparently we are in danger of getting lax and sloppy. There have been instances of people spilling tea on dresses and so forth. Oh don't shout at me miss, I just got here.

In general, the people on British productions who direct extras are Assistant Directors, and occasionally they are Assistants to the Assistant Directors. The hierarchy can be Byzantine in its complexity. For a largely American (but still valid) perspective see
Many of these people are sweet of course, but they are surrounded by an atmosphere of fear and may  dislike extras because it is only human nature to dislike stuff that makes their unhappy lives harder, which is everything on set. And also because of fear of looking silly if the person above them countermands their order. In one film, me and another extra were once ordered  to throw a (well-known) actor off a bench  in  one way by the Assistant Assistant, then the Assistant chipped in with an entirely different order - then the Director himself ordered us to do it a different way: the other extra whispered to me - 'We're not being paid enough for this' . 
We sure ain't
This wee scene reminded me of Mr and Mrs Andrews -
We get huckled into the Palace of Westminster which has been recreated in a corner of a warehouse. My job is to sit on  a gallery bench and look enthralled. Sadly there is no room on the bench for me and someone - possibly the Director - gives me an imperious wave to leave. As I depart, a voice whispers 'You're out of it you lucky sod'. Outside I look at the scene on the monitors - it looks really good.
It was  incredibly  hot in there. If I am sent home I will escape the heat and get paid for the day but it is not the done thing to connive at being sent home. I then make a BIG MISTAKE, I drink a  cup of coffee. At my age I can only drink coffee if I have access to a toilet for the next two hours.
We go for lunch in the excellent River City canteen. I am one of the last to eat. I need to go to the toilet but every cubicle is full. I cannot pee at the urinal because the front flat on my breeks has to come down and I can't manage it standing up. I go outside and say to a distracted-looking passing extra that I may be late getting back to the portokabin. He mumbles aloud.
I go back into the toilet. The air is dense with thunderous farts. I go back out. At last, one of the Giant Farters leaves and I get a  cubicle.  I work at my buttons but my bad thumb joint starts acting up. I feel terrible - the flap won't move. Suppose I pee my pants? How do I explain this to the angelic-looking costume lady? Could I pretend I sat in  a puddle of pee without knowing?
I finally emerge and head for the Portokabin.  I fall in with one of the lead actors (nice bloke) and we chat. I can't hear what he is saying because I suddenly realise that the extra I told I was going to be late was actually an actor and will not have had a scooby what I am talking about (he was mumbling some lines to himself I now realise) - I am absent without leave. Sure enough I miss the briefing and make-up but I was out of the episode anyway. I give my costume back.
The River City set is surrounded by bogs,  and by roads that go nowhere, like the sad end of our lives as extras, when the Great Director will call us to account. Being an extra means accepting a grim Calvinist system of rejection, of often being picked but not chosen. I have been knocked back so many times. My favourite knockback was at Inverary Castle (film was about the history of Harris Tweed) where I and a fellow group of hairy tweedies dresseed as Shackleton's expedition to the South Pole were approached by an assistant director who came over to us and said 'Sorry guys,  the director says you are too old'. More usually the  unit has run out of time and your scene is cancelled, as happened with a fight scene I had in Peter Mullen's Neds, when it rained and rained and me and my fellow auld battler sat out the afternoon in a trailer, until finally told to go home - scene cut. Even worse, you get filmed and your scene gets chopped in the edit - see the great Tom Courtenay in the Jack Rosenthal scripted TV film, Ready When You Are Mr McGill, a film extras watch in horror through their fingers. See also http://glasgowalbum.blogspot.com/2010/02/taggart.html

On this day Edwin Morgan died, and the funeral was held in Govan of Jimmy Reid.