03 April 2010

A Day in the Life of a TV Extra

On Friday, my Beloved and I had the chance to be extras in a TV show - Inspector George Gently, starring Martin Shaw.  Here is a rough outline of the day; the times are approximate.  As you read, please bear in mind that the show's episode takes place on a summer's day...
  • 6:00 am - My alarm goes off and we peel ourselves out of bed.  We prepare for the day with breakfast and a shave (just me, not my Beloved). 
  • 7:00 am - The day is very cold and I have to scrape the ice off the car before we leave home for the film unit's location.  My Beloved drives as I have to navigate.
  • 7:30 am - At the unit we report to the Second Assistant Director and find out where we have to go and what to do.  This turns out to be sitting on an old coach until called to Costume.  There is a small, 2kW fan heater on the 56-seater coach.  The door is open most of the time as the 32 extras arrive and go in and out for tea, coffee and breakfast.  We had not known breakfast would be provided, otherwise we could have got up later.  We just have tea, and fill in our registration form so we can be paid.  We begin to feel the cold.
  • 7:55 am - Deciding to get a bacon sandwich, I join the queue at the catering van.
  • 8:04 am - Just as I am about to be served, I am sent to Costume.  No bacon butty for me.
  • 8:06 am - Costume.  The dresser gives me a dark green, sixties-style suit to wear, with a cream shirt and narrow, brown tie (I had one of these in the sixties), and a decent pair of brown brogues.  I am to play a prosecution solicitor.  I get changed in an unheated room then the Dresser adjusts the length of the trousers and fits me with braces to hold them up.  My anachronistic spectacles must not be worn during takes. 
  • 8:25 am - I am sent back to the bus to await the call to Make-up.  I shut the door and take my seat again.  My Beloved is not there, having been called to Costume.
  • 8:30 am - Make-up.  Someone from Make-up turns up and sends me to be checked over.  I join the queue outside the Make-up Winnebago, meeting my Beloved who is dressed like her mother.  Another extra (playing a member of the press, and looking like a sleazy prat) jokes with my Beloved, 'Haven't you been to Costume yet?'  The guy in front of me gets told off for not being clean-shaven.  I am told I may get a moustache stuck on, and then I am told that I get a gold star for having shaved off my beard and moustache the night before.  My hair could be longer, though.  The Make-up girl smiles when I inform her that I am growing it even as I stand here.  The Winnebago is warm but, regrettably, nothing needs to be done to improve my appearance (as if) and I am sent back to the ice-box.  I visit the toilet, which is also warm, before returning to the bus to have my bones frozen.  I strike up a conversation with one of the others (I'm in the bus now, not the toilet) who is very welcoming on discovering that I am on my first gig as an extra, and he regales me with stories of his past experiences of freezing all day only to show up as an indistinct blur in the background.
  • 8:50 am - My Beloved returns with a sixties hair-do that she is later told makes her look like she has slept on her face all night.  The cold bites deep to the core as we sit and chat with others on the bus.  The man opposite (my fellow prosecuting solicitor and who was reprimanded for his hirsute appearance) does gigs as a drag queen, the one next to him was an extra in the film, Atonement. As we chatter, so do our teeth.  Our feet go numb as the circulating air seeks egress from the ever-open doors.
  • 11:50 am - On Set.  Numerous cups of tea and visits to the warm toilets later, we get the call to the set, the nearby County Court.  We are ferried down on a minibus, led into the courtroom and shown our places.  At this point, we still have no idea what is going on or what the scene or even the episode is about, and are given no direction.  As it turns out, it makes no difference for the first take, during which the judge makes his summing-up statement and passes sentence on the accused, a process that takes about three minutes, because none of us is in shot.  Then we are all moved out of the courtroom while the cameras are moved to different positions.  We come back and the whole process repeats.  There is the possibility that my left ear plays a major role in this take.  For the next take, one of the cameras will be in the position of the prosecuting solicitors and so the drag queen and I sit the next take or two out.  My Beloved is in the jury (front row) and has to stay in for all the morning's takes.
  • 12:50 pm - Lunch.  We extras are referred to as 'Background'.  We are told to wait a few minutes while the stars and crew go back to base.  Eventually we are told we can walk back to get lunch, now that the others have gone.   I can only assume that the minibus is a precaution against our getting soaked by rain - which had been forecast in copious quantities that would cause Noah to be concerned but which had failed to turn up.  The walk, in costume and through public streets, is only a few minutes; I feel like I am at a Bad Taste party. Back at base we are told to wait in the bus and we will be called when we can have lunch.  I learn something new: there is a definite pecking order; actors first, then crew, and extras are just props, the lowest of the low.  It is my sincere belief that some of us could be replaced by cardboard cut-outs.  The bus is colder than the open air.  
  • 1:25 pm - We are allowed to eat.  Actually the food is not bad and is, best of all, hot.  We are needed back on set by 2:05 pm but there proves to be time to eat, visit the toilet for a warm, and then drink tea from a polystyrene cup while walking back down to court.
  • 2:05 pm - Shooting resumes.  The cameras are in different positions again.  For the first shoot, we prosecuting solicitors are just out of shot but we do our bit without griping.  The cameras are moved again.  This time we are in shot (complete with our anachronistic haircuts) and are given some direction by the First Assistant Director.  We are the winning team.  We sit calmly, professionally, and receive the announcement of the sentence with satisfaction but without elation.  We are to glance at each other on hearing the outcome and at the accused when she behaves strangely and again at each other in reaction to her antics.  The take proceeds.  My left eyebrow overacts. 
  • 3:00 pm - I am no longer in shot for the rest of the courtroom takes as the focus is to be on the public and press galleries.  Consequently, I get to sit around in the court lobby for the rest of the afternoon.  At least it is warm.  My Beloved is given a different hair-do and loses a cardigan so that she can sit in the public gallery as a different person.  With the amount of hairspray dispensed to hold her style in place, she has been warned to stay away from naked flames (that could provide a way to keep warm!).  Her new look is this time reminiscent of my mother, at least of the way she wore her hair in the sixties.  The next couple of hours drag by for me but my Beloved and her fellow extras get to sit behind and chat with the Great Man himself.  He has no lines in the courtroom scene; he has only to indicate his opinion of the sentence by facial expression and body language.  He is a proper Actor.  Actually, that is very much the same as what I had to do.  Only not so well.  And not so well paid.  And without my own Winnebago.
  • 4:30 pm - We get sandwiches and cake (after the Important People, of course).
  • 5:00 pm - We begin filming a different scene.  This scene is outside in summer (an unseasonally cold one, clearly) and shooting it involves standing around between takes, and walking in and out of the court building in the takes, over and over again with the cameras in different positions.  One extra, playing a policeman, is in danger of his face blending into his shirt.  It proves to be extremely difficult to act warm on a freezing cold day in such a lazy wind.  Furthermore, the impending rain puts in an appearance but then decides it is too cold to hang around.  Strangely enough, the Great Man wears a raincoat for every take.  He must have been sweltering.
  • 6:50 pm - IT'S A WRAP!  The shoot is over.  We can wait while the VIPs are taken back to base, then we can walk back. 
  • 7:00 pm - We collect our belongings from the bus, go to Costume and wait in the queue to get changed in the still-cold room.
  • 7:10 pm - My beloved and I drive away knackered and with the car's heater on full-blast.
  • 7:45 pm - We arrive home, sensation returned to our extremities, and ready for a Chinese takeaway and an early night.
We have spent eleven hours, the majority of it waiting around, and mostly in the cold, to film two scenes, one of which lasts about three minutes and the other 30 seconds.  Would I do it again?  Time will tell but a warmer time of the year would certainly be preferable.  Thermal underwear would certainly have been a boon.  Maybe when I've retired and I'm short of cash and the tax-man's cut will be smaller... 

It has been interesting seeing at first hand how these things are done.  I look forward to seeing the episode and how the scene eventually turns out and if we are in it.  Knowing us, we will probably be out when it is transmitted and the recorder will fail...


  1. Cool.
    Thanks for making me laugh.

  2. If you play your cards right, you might end up as a background blur in one of MY beloved's epics ... one day!

    And don't worry, we'll let you into the warm trailer!