One of my first ever proper gigs was an advert. I was in my late teens, had only been street performing for a few months, and had been recommended to an agent by another performer. I was lucky - pretty much immediately he got me a casting for an advert.
Castings are horrible. They are the auditions at which a director who doesn't know what he wants, working to a script or storyboard that is very often not even close to being the final product, will take a series of quick glances at a never-ending series of performers, each of whom are hoping to be the thing that the director doesn't yet know he is looking for. I have long since instructed all my agents to stop sending me to castings. Here is why. When you arrive, you are given a script and led to a waiting room to sit with all the other actors who are up for the same part. From here it can go one of two ways. Either they are all very very different to you, which makes you think that you're clearly the wrong casting type for this and don't have a snowball's chance in hell. Or, even worse, you slowly realise that they all look just like you, and all those years of telling yourself that you're unique and special were wasted, as you're obviously as generic as a biro. It's a joyously lose-lose situation.
As if that's not enough good reason to avoid the whole casting thing, here's another reason. This happened at a casting I did many years ago for Coleman's Mustard. I swear this happened exactly as written here.
Casting monkey: "Ok, hi, so we're going to put some music on and if you could just dance for us, that'd be great."
Me: "Well, I'm actually not a dancer, I'm more of a physical comedian and juggl.."
"Stayin' Alive" by the BeeGee's begins. I do my best to bust out some 70's disco moves. The music eventually stops
C.M: "Ok, that's great. just great. Now, can we do it again, but this time imagine you're a pig. Ok? Go."
The same music starts again. I'm clueless on how a pig would disco dance, seeing as, y'know, they don't. So I do the same moves, but - and it pains me to remember this - I make little trotters with my hands and - oh god - I oink. After what seems like an eternity, the music stops.
C.M: "Great. Wonderful. Great stuff. Now... do you know who Timothy Spall is?"
I told them I did indeed know of the great British actor Tim Spall - I had seen him on stage in his first ever West End role, was familiar with his TV work and had been lucky enough to meet him a couple of years earlier when he came back stage at a Music Hall show I was doing at the end of the pier theatre in Cromer, Norfolk. So yes, I knew him.
C.M: "He's the voice of the pig. So if we can take another shot at it, this time taking that on board. Ok? aaand.."
I thought for a second. Is there, I reasoned, a way to convey to these people how ridiculous and unattainable this is? That I cannot fathom how to create the character of a disco dancing pig - who doesn't speak - yet "take on board" that he has a Birmingham accent and a flair for slightly melancholic characters. Is there any way of articulating that this is impossible without making them seem like morons. No, I decided, there isn't. So I just said goodbye and walked out. That was, at my request, my last casting. And I don't regret my decision. Life is way too short to spend in the company of idiots called Chloe and Ben who work in advertising and who's closest brush with talent, art or intellect is when they pretend to know the names that the director of todays masterpiece is clumsily dropping. I realise that I'm generalising here, but hey - that's their casting type.
This is not to say, of course, that my experience actually filming adverts is awful. Quite to the contrary, once they've decided to spend money on you, they treat you like a king. Well, at least a duke. Of adverts.
Anyway, as I mentioned, my new agent set me up with a casting, and it seemed I was too young to know the right amount of disdain to treat these people with, so I aced it and got the part. Flash forward a couple of days and I'm sitting in business class being flown to CineCitta studios in Rome to film an advert for an Italian TV channel, Rai-2. My co-star in the ad is a late middle aged heavily buxom, and also quite heavy, very charming woman. She is to play the showgirl assistant to my Vegas style juggler. The script, part of a long-running series all with the same punchline, has us both on stage, her dancing around as I juggle lots of clubs. I throw the clubs higher and higher until, one by one, the clubs are stolen at the peak of their throw by a mysterious white gloved hand. Finally, with no clubs left to juggle, the music grinds to a clumsy halt and we both shuffle slowly off stage, embarassed. It's genuinely funny, and our performance gets laughs from the crew.
I had no idea of the importance of CineCitta studios, until, while relaxing in my dressing room, I hear some gunshots. I take a hesitant look out in the corridor and hear more gunshots coming from the room next door, which only now do I notice is labelled "Godfather III Special effects". Cool.
I've only been featured in one advert that aired in the UK. Although foreign adverts are good in that nobody sees you making a tit of yourself, British ones pay a lot better.
I was to star as - yes - "The Juggler" in one of a series of adverts for British Gas. In each ad - usually, it has to be said, fronted by minor celebrities - something bizarre would happen that would somehow tie into the final shot of the aforementioned minor celebrity holding up a thumb, upon which would be superimposed a blue flame, and delivering the line "Don't you just love being in control?"
The script to mine sounded like fun. I would be juggling some rings while talking about the latest offer and being watched by a little dog. Then I would stop, hold all the rings in one hand, pull open my jacket with my other hand to reveal a neon sign underlining the offer. Then the dog would jump through the rings. Juggling, special effects, performing dog. What's not to like?
The director was a nice guy, seem to like me, and most of my stuff got filmed pretty quickly. Electric jacket - no problem. Stopping juggling in shot and on cue - easy. Lines - surprisingly smooth. Then we came to the finale. Jumping dog.
All day we'd been thinking it. That dog looks awfully small to be able to jump through a hoop. But no, the woman from the agency for performing animals assured us all, it would be child's play. It is, after all no ordinary dog- it has been trained for showbiz. We took a break and all went outside into the car park to rehearse the jumping dog bit. Probably best, the woman explained, if he learns it first with her holding the hoop, and then with me. Seems fair. She held the hoop in one hand, and the dogs lead in the other. Then, very slowly, as if we wouldn't see, she lowered the hoop until it touched the floor, fed the lead through the hoop and yanked the poor little dog through after it. We all stood slack-jawed.
"There!", she said, turning with a sheepish grin, "Ta-daa!"
Two hours and several dozen expletives from the director later, and there's a new dog and new handler on set. And this one looks like the real deal. Bright eyes, waggly tail. Born for the business like Lena Zavaroni. We try it. I ask the handler what I should do, and she tells me to hold the rings anywhere I like and when I want the dog to jump, "Just give him the eye".
And it really is as simple as that. I stop juggling, hold out the rings, glance at the dog with a "go on" look in my eye, and he jumps, sailing through the rings effortlessly and elegantly, then landing gently and looking up at me with a smile. A pro.
It was this advert that solidified my ambition to not be famous. I understand of course, that not being famous should be a fairly achievable aim for most people, and even more so for jugglers, but that's not the point. Most performers won't admit the desire to be famous. Most will happily admit, like gracious deities, that all they want is to be able to make a living from what they do. Riches, that's all we want, and recognition for our work by our peers perhaps. And an ice cream. But deep down in most performers soul there is a little voice saying, "Yeah, but it'd be cool to be famous, huh?"
Now I'm not going to say for a second that I famous, but one single year, for about a month while my British Gas advert was being shown, I was on TV several times a night. So every so often, people would recognise me in the street. It was very weird and hugely unpleasant. I would be walking through the West End, shopping, and a random man would appear, grinning, in front of me, with his thumb sticking up. Saying, and I'm quoting directly here, "Eh? Eh? EH?" and punching me in the arm playfully with his other hand. Finally he would get around to the denoument: "eh? EH? GAS! INNIT?" To which I would have to smile, agree, shake his hand and mumble "Yes. Gas". This wasn't some isolated incident. This happened often. Much too often.
Don't get me wrong, if someone likes my work, then I'm happy to talk about my wonderfulness for days on end. Only a fool gets tired of that. But this wasn't about my work, it was just about my face being on TV, nothing more. It seemed that what I did on TV wasn't important, it was just important that I was there. Too weird for me.
I got a phone call a few weeks ago from an agent. She'd never called me before for any reason. But she was calling today with the Earth-shatteringly exciting news that there was a casting for a male juggler. I told her no thanks. She genuinely couldn't believe her ears. She thought one of us had mis-heard. An hilarious mistake that we would laugh about in weeks to come. She repeated the news. "No thanks", I politely ventured, "I don't do castings". There was a pause. "What?", she said. "I don't do castings. Thank for thinking of me though, take care..". Now she was annoyed, "What do you mean you don't do castings? Why not?", "Well", I said, "I used to do them, and they made me unhappy, so now I don't. Thanks for thinking of me though". Now she was angry, exasperated and making no attempt to hide it. How dare I, a mere performer, turn down whatever offer of fame and riches she was offering me? "That's ridiculous!", she snapped. "Ok, well thanks, bye", I said, laughing as I hung up the phone.
Two other agents called that day, all for the same casting. None of them had ever got in touch for anything before, so I knew I wasn't burning any bridges that I'd ever have need to use. They all had problems with me turning down a casting, sadly used to performers who jump at every opportunity they're given, regardless of how patronising or ill-judged it is. There are some very good agents out there, and a lot of bad ones, but here's the thing: without performers, agents have nothing, but without agents, performers have an extra 10%.