Lurching from feast to famine like a drunk on an ocean-liner, actors are the walking, talking expression of the 21st century binge economy. During a spell of gainful employment, it’s Krug through a straw, wads of notes down the cleavage and devil take the hindmost. Then the job comes to an end – and it’s a wrecked credit-rating, trips to Poundstretcher and hurling abuse at George Osborne on the telly.
So, it’s over a month since Wars of the Roses came to an end in Kingston, and where are we at? In no particular order: the RSC performing their usual trick of fluttering their eye-lashes at me for weeks on end, then telling me to sod off; a disastrous casting for a telly thing where it appeared I lost the ability to even pronounce my own name, let alone make sense of the script; and, in the immediate aftermath of the carnage in Paris and the downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai, a white-knuckle ride to the Middle East to take part in, erm, a health & safety workshop.
But hey, that’s all for another post. Today, I want to provide a brief snapshot of the actor when he or she is at rest.
Before & After
Now, as is commonly understood and celebrated down the ages, we actors survive in-between jobs on a diet of own-brand value nuts and skin gnawed from scabby knuckles, preferably our own. The sudden reduction in calorific intake that attends the end of a contract, coupled over time with the bowel-churning mood-composites of anxiety, recurrent disappointment and professional jealousy lead to an increase in our overall metabolism and a commensurate and gratifying level of weight-loss.
This appears to have the unintended and vaguely Darwinian side-effect of making us appear slightly more employable by the industry at large. What was heretofore a complacent smirk perched atop a few wobbly chins like a cherry on a jelly trifle becomes razor-sharp cheekbones beneath haunted eyes that scream mutely: I am your monkey-man, make me dance for you, lord.
And, unlike Cassius in Julius Caesar, the lean and hungry look does tend to get the gig, I’m afraid. (Just ask Robbie Sheehan.) Thus a new and exciting position will eventually be obtained, our identity reaffirmed and bank account replenished. Running back to Waitrose as to a lover’s bed, the cycle begins afresh.
Of course, this all assumes you don’t comfort-eat to fill the void in your life. If you do, then frankly you’re screwed, and you should go into teaching.
We’re all actors now
For some of us, this backbreaking and undignified process becomes less tenable with the arrival of angelic little parasites back home. So a workable compromise must be sought, which allows us to continue the Ceaseless Quest whilst also paying the rent.
For most actors, this entails any number of sordid transactions with the real world, all on a temporary, mutually contemptuous basis, and zero loyalty given or expected by either party. Waiter, cold-caller, office temp: back when I first started out, these jobs were the grouting in the complex mosaic of the British economy, a means by which an actor/artist/struggling citizen could negotiate their precarious way on to the next serious stepping-stone in their wider career. Little did we know then that us struggling actors were the vanguard of society’s heroic experiment in neo-liberal capitalism, participating in an economic model that would become the norm for all walks of life. Of course, now there are hardly any tiles left, and in economic terms, it’s pretty much wall-to-wall grout as far as the eye can see.
There’s a new demographic term for these jobs and the folks who fill them: the precariat. Soon, everyone will be on zero-hours contracts, and we’ll all be as desperate as each other.
Finally, equality for all. Stop struggling. Accept your destiny.
For a while in my twenties, I used to have a job where I would phone bored unemployed people in the middle of the day from a bleak, strip-lit call centre in Harrow and ask them whether they’d be interested in insurance protection in the event of them becoming, um, unemployed. We would also aim to discover their views on toilet rolls, breakfast oaty bars, euthanasia, all the critical components of a life spent on the dole.
Populated by a chaotic jumble of couch-hopping desperadoes, it was a serious case of the blind phoning the blind, a greenhouse of sweaty, cacophonous misery. Shouty young people with BTECs in media studies jostled cheek by jowl with sweet old ladies with whole lives in a few carrier bags and balding divorcees who had lost everything. In amongst them all, fighting for air with a few bad jokes, were some young actors who were rather too cheery to be credible.
The whole outfit was run by a pair of cadaverous old thespians in stained cardigans and neck-ties called Terrance and Jim. A dessicated camp double-act from a more analogue era, they kept their old 1970s Spotlight photographs beneath bottles of vodka in a drawer, both to be gleefully whipped out for an outing depending on the audience. I think we novice actors, wet behind the ears and hilariously convinced of our incipient greatness, were Terrance and Jim’s last connection with the life of footlights and old-fashioned grease-paint that had left them far behind.
I still remember with fondness Terrance occasionally cornering me in my booth whilst I was attempting to make light conversation with a mono-syllabic malingerer on the phone. His leathery skull would appear over my shoulder and there he would hover, a wizened squirrel smelling of tomatoes and surgical spirits, reminiscing in his fruity baritone about playing Buttons in Worthing opposite Diana Dors.
She was filthy, so I was assured.
In the UK, vortex flow control technology was first harnessed in the mid-20th century to control and dissipate the energy of water dropping from high-level drains into deep-drop sewers. Today vortex technology is apparently used in thousands of drainage and sewerage applications all over the world. It also provides the basis, I am given to understand, for hydrodynamic separation of silts, oils and pollutants from stormwater and of ‘solids separation solutions’ in sewerage treatment.
In other words, my friends, should you ever need to seriously sort through your shit, this is the technology for you – and the scientific basis for another period of my youth that I recall with vivid and abject horror.
Looking like the forgotten member of the Village People, it was my job to hose down human excrement from the glistening sides of various ducts and sewers around the county of Hampshire. Then, using vortex flow control, we would collect it and extract all the incidental gubbins that one so often finds gatecrashing the modern toilet.
It was a two-man job, necessitating one of us at the front of the hose to point and click, and a wingman at the rear to stand there and retch violently into the wind. We delivered our cleansing jets from the side of a monstrous vehicle that was clearly moonlighting from a Ridley Scott movie, and was a proudly British invention that had featured on Tomorrow’s World.
(For our younger readers, Tomorrow’s World was a pop science programme in the 1970s and ’80s that presented humanity’s newest innovations to the British public as a way of reaffirming our faith in the species. A sort of Blue Peter for grown-ups. I remember thinking at the time that getting into a lather of excitement over a big lorry that sucked poo from a pipe seemed to suggest something depressing about British innovation at the back end of the twentieth century.)
Chief poo-cleanser was a gentleman called Keith, who drove the bus and was in charge of the hose. Over the years Keith had built up a fearsome understanding of the capacity of the human bowel, and would regale me with an exhaustive list of the items he had catalogued that had dodged the numerous digestive acids functioning in and around Eastleigh circa 1989. From sweetcorn and tomato pips to the corpses of pet rabbits and the last will and testament of a prominent politician, he’d seen it all, and was keen to share his knowledge of the intimate processes of mass urban defecation in all their startling glory. This, in spite of the progress of my packed lunch, which owing to the topic of conversation, would often be hovering at my lips in a traumatic crisis of confidence.
Character building, and not a little informative.
The Focus Group
One marvellous little wheeze that actors are apparently supposed to keep quiet about is the focus group.
Political parties, major corporations, jihadi terror groups: all have a need to know what the public think of any given party line, product or murderous rampage. Every single product you consume throughout your day will have been market-tested to destruction to achieve its purest expression of appeal, often in front of a specially selected gaggle of every-day punters. Trouble is, most actual members of the public have too little time or inclination to sit down with a clipboard in a suit and give of their opinion. After all, most of them are too busy consuming. Which is where actors come in.
On a wet Wednesday evening, I can often be found with a group of other pretend people sat in front of a two-way mirror in a market research suite in central London doing a brilliant rendition of Joe Public desperately keen to share his thoughts regarding a soon-to-be-launched breakfast oaty-bar, or similar.
I will have been summoned to the suite by a mysterious lady I’ve never met who has my details on file. She phones me up with an offer of a particular focus group, tells me who I am, what my consumer preferences are and my preferred attitude to the product in question. It’s all thrillingly Mission Impossible.
My standard disguise in these sessions is the bustling, well-heeled business executive who just happens to have been persuaded away from his relentless jet-hopping schedule by a few twenty-pound notes and a tray of curling sandwiches. Needless to say, I can also play across a wide range of social groupings and sexual preferences, as required by the product’s market research team. After all, I’m a classically trained actor. Most of this stuff was covered in Voice and Movement classes.
In the market research suite, pleasingly reflected in a gigantic mirror, ten chatty actors pretending we’ve never seen each other before and one unwitting facilitator engage in a freewheeling dialogue regarding the respective merits of an imminent advertising campaign. Viz: do we thrust the oaty-bar’s logo boldly against the backdrop of a street of laughing children, or do we gently position it at rest in a field of corn swaying in the sunshine? And what does each approach say about the ability of the breakfast oaty-bar to a) speak to my aspirations as a modern consumer of morning comestibles; and b) have a chance in hell of persuading me away from a bacon butty in a greasy paper bag?
These, amongst many such paralysing questions of demographic & aesthetic urgency, it is our job as proud facsimiles of the lumpen proletariat to place in our mouths, chew and spit out on a shiny IKEA coffee table. As well as the oaty-bar itself, if we’re lucky. This we do in full view of a hidden panel of advertising executives in the adjacent room. These shadowy individuals are, of course, quietly overjoyed at the uninhibited opinions of actual real live consumers only fractionally removed from their natural habitat.
Bless them. Not a clue.
Of course, there’s a reasonable chance that with a fair wind and an agent worth his or her commission, our air-conditioned coterie of actors might then go on to audition round the corner in Soho for the starring role in the series of TV adverts that will eventually accompany the breakfast oaty-bar’s promotional campaign. And subsequently, once it’s available and flying off the shelves, you’ll probably get a phone call from one of us in a Harrow call-centre to conduct a questionnaire about it. (Some poor sod might even get to clean the end result off the sides of a sewage pipe for you.)
Welcome to the virtual economy, my children. By which I mean that at virtually every point along the supply chain of modern life lurks an actor pretending to be you in order to sell the actual you what we’ve told the dark lords through the looking glass what the virtual you wants. Nothing is what it appears. There is no free will. It’s like the premise to The Matrix.
And you thought we were the puppets on a string. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!
(No actual people were harmed in the making of these caricatures.)