Last Wednesday was an enjoyable day; I spent it on the set of the ITV detective series Vera, which has just completed filming season six. Created by ITV Gallowgate, Vera is based on the books by Ann Cleeves set here in our glorious North East. Vera is played by my cousin Brenda Blethyn of whom I am enormously proud. She and I share a set of great grandparents, so I jumped at her invitation to go down and watch her work. Coincidentally, I’ve been looking for spots as a film extra via an agency, something I’ve always wanted to do – but never had the time. On Wednesday I was given the opportunity to dip my toe in the water.
I was so anxious about heavy traffic/breaking down/running someone over/ flat tyres/snowstorms/floods/high winds/falling trees/earthquakes, that I left the house two hours before I needed to. Consequently, having failed to encounter any of the aforementioned calamities, I arrived somewhat sharp. I asked security to point me in the direction of the ITV studios, gleefully rubbing my hands at the prospect of the glamorous world I was about to be a part of. A palatial building, I thought. High glass walls, water coolers with ice blue plastic cups, comfy armchairs – sprinkled around low coffee tables decked with glossy magazines. No doubt there would be a coffee filter machine in the corner, and an intimidating receptionist with long painted nails, sitting beneath framed photographs of beaming TV stars. The security chap snapped me out of my reverie.
“You want to be over there, where those white vans are.”
“I see, you mean somewhere behind the white vans?”
“No pet, the white vans, that’s it. Enjoy yourself; I hope you’re wearing something warm. Portaloos are in the wagon just at the front there, you’ll need them in this cold weather, I know I do.”
There was a solitary chap leaning against the portaloo wall. He looked up from his crossword puzzle and suggested I go over to the dining bus and wait there. The dining bus is an old double-decker with tables. There was only one person aboard, a tall chap sipping coffee and studying his mobile phone. He looked as smart as a dart, in an immaculate suit, beneath an expensive black overcoat, with not a trace of the cat fur so stubbornly clinging to my own (Primark) formal attire. He looked important, and possibly famous, so I approached warily and sat down behind him, apologising for the intrusion as I did so.
“Hello,” he said, “I’m Jimmy, one of the CID. What are you doing here?”
No wonder I didn’t recognise him then, I know a lot of CID officers, and not one of them has ever tipped up for work dressed like that.
“Well I’m a sort of an extra,” I mumbled, “though I am related to one of the cast and I’ve come to see her, but I’m definitely a sort of extra as well.” I was conscious of sounding a bit lame, I needed to be professional, exert some punch, and let this chap know precisely who he was dealing with.
“Yes, an extra, that’s what I am, an extra.” I tried to sound confident.
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
I stared glumly at the table, carefully erasing a coffee stain from the Formica with my finger, and wondered if, given the circumstances, the truth might be a better option.
“I’ve never been before, I retired a fortnight ago, and I’ve always wanted to do this once I left work, or at least give it a try, because I might not be any good, so if you could keep me right……….” And keep me right he did. Not just Jimmy, but the other lovely people who arrived shortly afterwards. The gregarious and happy Terry, from Virginia, Karin (who it turns out is married to the gentleman who taught me self-defence in the police, as well as being the future mother-in-law of my friend’s daughter). Alan, Shirley, Bev, Yan, Chris and Lorraine. You can catch Lorraine on her show reel here Lorraine Jukes. All of them are old hands at extra work, they’ve known each other for a long time and I expected them to be cliquey. My first big mistake of the day – the second one was accidentally going into the gent’s (porta) loo. It would have been very easy for them to join in a clique – but not a jot of it. Everyone looked after me, gently kept me right, and gave good advice on getting future work, and work it is, be in no doubt about that.
I wonder how long a successful actor spends standing on a red carpet? I suppose it might amount to twenty minutes or so over the course of a career. I don’t really know, I’m just guessing, because I’ve never been to a red carpet event, but I reckon it would be about that, certainly no more than an hour when all totted up. My first hand knowledge of a film set presently amounts to being on one for a single day, but I can tell you categorically that the graft that goes into it all could never be gauged in minutes. It can only be measured in hour upon hour, day after day, months and years. I’ve never seen a team of people work so hard, and I mean team and hard. It’s the actors who we see on our screens, but the directors, producers, writers, wardrobe people, continuity folk, catering staff, crew, and scene builders. It was lovely to see Brenda, but our conversations (about Aunty Nora) were brief, because neither she nor any of the other leading actors ever got any breaks. My own contribution, was as a police officer attending a briefing, and pretending to write down the every utterance of a superior officer. This is exactly what I used to do in real life.
It was highly skilled, but also relentless and repetitive. I came away appreciating even more, the finished products that are created by those in the entertainment industry for our enjoyment. Oh, and forget the glamour, the set is part of a drafty unit on a Newcastle industrial estate. There wasn’t a glass wall or a coffee machine in sight, but the lovely company more than made up for it.