Five years ago I applied to the Film Artistes’ Association – the union for extras – in an attempt to find a way of funding my writing. I needed a job that didn’t take all my time and yet paid well. Prostitution had crossed my mind – I expect most women fantasise about that – but the memory of a foreign student and patron of tarts whom I’d once taught brought me back to reality.
I had little acting experience. My tallness and bad reputation only got me nasty male parts at school – the Dragon versus St George, the Red Death, Shylock (at 12), Malvolio and Dr Chasuble. A local boys’ school gave me a couple of good female Shakespearean roles, though. Next came Prince Charming in suspenders at Art School – luckily all the audience was drunk – and three amateur films. In these I played the Spirit of the 1970s, floating through Highgate Cemetery in red eye make-up, an Edwardian wedding-dress and a wreath of weeds, Frau Wagner singing on a cliff top in gold lamé; – I was fat then and shouldn’t have worn that dress – and a Victorian brothel-keeper. Not much to boast of.
Initially I was turned down. The Union only wanted under-eighteens. Past it at 25! I speculated about reapplying as 17 using my first name, Helen. One look in the mirror told me it wouldn’t wash. Then, after months, a letter arrived telling me to go to Central Casting.
The poky office was tucked away above a multi-storey car-park off Piccadilly. I handed in my shadowy, ravaged picture. (The local photographer unfortunately believes with Keats that truth is beauty.) A worried girl passed me a form. First, I put down my vital statistics, making them a little more vital as nobody was standing by with a tape-measure to check. Then came ‘What uniforms do you have?’ ‘Have you got trendy gear?’ ‘Inside leg measurement ...’ I ticked more or less everything in panic – I’m like that with forms.
The casting official took a swift look at my nasty, kinky, black vinyl mac. I only hang on to it because I’m amused by people’s reactions. Unfortunately the cat fancies it something rotten. I often don’t even realise what he’s done to or with it until I reach the fresh air and it hits me. Anyway, it got me cast as a rioting student in a crowd of 950.
The first day’s filming of Breaking Glass taught me that I would never go on a real demonstration. People get hurt. Rumour had it that the producer had hired some cheap non-union extras from the local dole queue – real National Front playing National Front. The crowd became a lethal cocktail of acted Punks and students, real NF members, real blacks and incompetent mounted ‘policemen’ in borrowed uniforms. I soon realised that genuine bricks were being swapped for the feather-light cork ones made by Properties. You could tell by the way they didn’t bounce off heads and arms any longer. Someone was taken away with a fractured skull. A few of the black actors got the hell out and sat behind hoardings playing poker or listening to tapes of Linton Kwesi Johnson. Memorably, most of them ganged up later in the day to cheer the NF boys for their ‘fine acting’.