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’.
Other jobs followed. Occasionally, the early starts mean I have to go up the night before as I live out of London. When this happens I break my journey at Gatwick and take an hour or two’s restive sleep stretched out on the prickly plush seats upstairs. I put a coat over my head to keep out the light. It also pays to undo discreetly anything that might get tight in the night – bra, flies and boots. I’ve learned to carry a case – without one you get questioned by the cops. I had that once. A burly policeman asked for some ID and I told him a few lies on principle. ‘Sorry to wake you up,’ he finished, ‘I thought you were a man.’
American Werewolf in London coincided with the Marathon and I shared a train in the small hours with runners from clubs round Brighton. They were all putting on liniment, lying back with their feet in the air, massaging the stuff into their calves. There were men’s legs everywhere. I began to wonder if I was dreaming.
Once in London, I usually walk to location jobs. The chill night air wakes you up enough to cope with the arduous day ahead. At first I was nervous, but soon I realised that London’s at its safest then – beautiful and empty. Dawn comes slowly. I look at small details, seeing how few pints offices and ministries have ordered. They’re all on machine-coffee now, only the caretakers touch the real stuff. By the time I reach the suburbs it’s normally light. One January, though, I had the strange experience of crossing half a mile of Syon Park to the deserted Transport Museum in pitch blackness, trying to sense whether I was on grass or concrete, terrified I might scrunch a peacock along the way.
As an extra, you’re a sort of mercenary, with no control over outward circumstances. It’s a game of survival. You become selfishly absorbed in trying to obtain some measure of comfort – obsessed with cat-naps, food and loos. (The euphemistically-termed ‘honey waggons’ on location stink of a blue disinfectant so potent it smells worse than anything you could possibly do down them.) Based in Lillywhites, once, I had to use the Gents – there didn’t seem to be another. An old man got really angry with me. Why do I get into altercations in lavatories? Attendants frequently descend on me for combing my hair near basins. In Baker Street Ladies, too, on my way to a job at five in the morning, I met a benighted Spanish au-pair who’d been dumped by her family and couldn’t even contact her embassy as it was the weekend. Some sanctimonious cow came in, looked at her desperate, scruffy appearance, then said to me: ‘I wish they wouldn’t allow these tarts in here. It’s very unhygienic, don’t you think?’ ‘I’m not a tart,’ I said, ‘she’s not a tart, but I don’t know about you.’
Sometimes I try to write on the sets during the long periods of inactivity. The strangeness of the situation brings sudden bursts of adrenalin. I find I can solve problems and see things more clearly. Often, I just talk. The film we’re working on usually dictates the general topic of conversation – home-improvements while we stormed the Winter Palace in the splendours of Lancaster House, oversized penises and willywarmers on Superman II. In Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story, everyone turned boastful and pretended to own villas in Benidorm. There are a few monomaniacs in the business who always talk about the same thing. One man extols the joys of lurcher-owning: ‘You’ll never starve with one of those. You just point it at what you want – nice bit of plaice, T-bone steak, and it’s yours. Those dogs are gold.’ There’s a religious bloke with a bad transplant. You can see the hairs sprouting in groups, like a doll’s, across his scalp. He sidles up to the younger women and tells them all the men there, barring him, are homosexual. ‘They’ll go to Hell,’ he gloats. ‘The Bible says so. And Hell is full of burning.’ So far, I’ve been too tolerant or tired to tell him to go there too. Others give their life stories. I got cornered once by a six-foot woman who said she was on steroids and had a young lover. ‘I’ve taught him such a lot about wine and things. I’ve really brought him up a class. He’s a good worker too. He manages three or four goes, even after cleaning out the cattery. I breed Siamese.’ Some extras have gone completely mad – the thin line between reality and fiction snapped. They’re usually convincing until you realise which films they’re basing it all on. The women use scenarios from The Bitch interspersed with dramatic accidents. The men use war films or James Bond and pretend they’re stuntmen.
The nicest thing about filming’s being paid in cash at the end of the day. It’s easy to save because you’re too tired to spend it. By then, they’ve fed you about six meals – ordinary ones, and snacks of rolls filled with bacon, sausage and egg. You eat it all – it’s something to do. While queuing to cash your chit you have a good moan about what the high heels have done to your back, how your head aches from a wig, or how you can’t move your neck because you’ve been stuck in a draught for the last twelve hours. Everybody looks red-eyed. The lights are blinding until you get used to them. Sometimes, when a certain hazy effect’s required, an acolyte puffs incense on the set. It’s the sort used for putting bees to sleep and does much the same to extras. When the air’s thick with it, your eyes feel dry and gritty.
Throughout the day I play a game with myself, calculatedly underestimating the amount of money I’ll get. The rules on payment are complicated: a basic rate plus overtime and sums for getting wet, body make-up, ‘special action’ such as fighting, and ‘broken lunch’. ‘Broken lunch’ is when you snatch food like a harpy and don’t get a proper sit-down. As I stuff the notes ungratefully into my bag, all the aches and pains magically disappear. Usually, some enterprising extra stands by with a case full of dud watches or pissy perfumes, ready to take the unwary.
Then comes the long trek home. Sometimes I finish late and have to wait for an early train. On a cold November night, after Superman, one of the guards in Victoria let me sit in a ticket-collector’s box. These have about six little red-hot heaters controlled by switches on the wall. I was joined by a Glaswegian – four foot three in heels. (I’ve never learned to say no to a stranger’s ‘Do you mind if I join you?’) He told me he spent his nights in stations to save money and felt suicidal because he couldn’t get a girlfriend. I had an hour to waste before the paper-train, so I thought I’d do the Samaritan bit. I felt smug as I trotted out some Mills and Boon philosophy about there being a right person for everybody (crap), and how he’d meet her one day. He cheered up a lot and asked me out. Feeling we’d be unequally yoked – I’m five foot eight and a half – I beat a retreat to the waiting train.
Sometimes I’ve bridged one day to another in the all-night horror films, when these were running – the only woman in an audience of winos, snorers and wankers. Still, it was good to be out of the cold. I saw a Japanese there once, washing his feet in Seven-Up.
I try to sleep on the train back. Once, after three days filming and just a few hours’ rest spread between them, I was asked by a commuter if I’d had a hard day at the office. I said ‘yes’ – it seemed easier than explaining. Back in bed I lie awake, my mind full of ideas. I know when I finally get off I’ll be back there on set, doing it all again for free.
In the long gaps between films I get down to my real work – writing. I’m influenced, I think, by the craftsmanship of Film, the artificial production of naturalness – the way the paintwork’s made to appear chipped and grimy, the costumes ‘broken down’ by many washes and the crowds grouped to look as if they’ve got together by coincidence. I aim for this same effect in my poems, trying to use natural speech rhythms, brand names, cliché;s. I am the director now, the words my extras.
I believe that Poetry should be worked at every day and thought about constantly. I learnt that kind of creative self-discipline at Art School and that’s something I’ll always be grateful for. I feel uneasy as I write these things, though. I also remember all the talking I did there. How I became good at providing pat and horribly pseud statements about my paintings. How eventually, I began to do only the sort of abstracts that I could explain well. They were elegant – nothing to be ashamed of really – but all the risk and creativity had gone. I sometimes think I’d have been a much better artist if I’d been locked away for those four years instead of having to spend painting-time and thought letting the tutors know what I was doing. I don’t want to make the same mistake again. I try not to care a toss about criticism, good or bad, these days, and to go my own solitary way, uninfluenced and undisturbed.
I’ve also given up talking to less informed people about my writing. I’m tired of the helpful suggestions. ‘Why don’t you send a few to card manufacturers?’, ‘How about the Lady?’ or, ‘Do a little love story for Woman’s Own instead.’ That last one’s out. I don’t know anything about love (I’ve never progressed beyond lust) and I’m not the womanly type. I’ve tried to frighten them by saying I only write obscene stuff, but the nice old ladies of Hastings never believe me.