Acting up


Working as an ‘extra’ on films can be fun, and years ago I tried my hand at it.

It was an unusual film, and the director was an unusual person. He was an over-the-top American, and it was a story about a Scottish village that was taken over by lunatics. Walter J. Harrison insisted on authenticity to such a degree that he was filming it in the Scottish Highlands in a tiny village, where he’d paid locals to have the use of local beauty spots and the pub and church.

Also, not content with having actors portraying the parts of mentally deranged people, he had done a deal with a psychiatric hospital in Inverness, and arranged for any of their patients who wanted to be in the film to do so. There were problems with Equity, I think, but he managed to sort it all out. The idea was for the psychiatric people to ‘behave naturally’ and act out the kind of outlandish behaviour that came naturally to them, something he was sure that ‘normal’ people wouldn’t be able to do authentically.

The psychiatric hospital was in Inverness, and this was where we, and most of the actors were staying, that town being the closest to our location, the village of Haggisburn (yes that really was its name). The logistics person had organised coaches to take us (few) extras, plus all the actors to the village every morning and return us back every night. It was a bit unnerving on the morning of the third day when we knew that, for the first time, the mentally-ill people would be making the same journey as we were. Extra coaches had been laid on, and we were late arriving at the despatch post, and there was a certain amount of confusion about who was to go in which coach.

Which was why my fellow extra Derek and I ended up on a different coach from our usual one that morning. This was probably because with the extra influx of patients from the psychiatric hospital, things were even more chaotic than usual, and we knew that at least two extra coaches were due to be going in the convoy to Haggisburn, and everything was at sixes and sevens.

My first feeling of unease was when I saw the man sitting in front of us – a distinctly odd looking character with a completely bald head – put a pipe into his mouth, with the bowl facing downwards. He sucked and pulled at the thing as if it was the right way up and full of burning tobacco, occasionally taking it out of his mouth to prod at the bowl’s imaginary contents with a stick as he stared out of the window, simultaneously sticking his tongue out and making his eyes bulge dramatically.

Behind me I could see a woman who was taking her clothes off. Aside from the fact that the weather was freezing cold, this behaviour was made even more bizarre when she proceeded to remove her top and began to unfasten her bra, to finally release its extremely large contents. All the while she was muttering to no one in particular, a mumbled angry diatribe of indecipherable words.

A man nearby was singing to himself in a peculiar falsetto tone, his voice rising up to a crescendo as he closed his eyes, because he was obviously so moved by his emotions. He couldn’t sing at all, but clearly thought he had the talent of Alfie Bow, and the sound was absolutely embarrassing and quite dreadful. Two women nearby were having a blazing row, shouting at each other so loudly that I wondered if they’d come to blows. One of them had a wild maniacal gleam in her eyes as she glared at the other woman, and I was glad she was several feet away from us.

Derek and I looked at each other in surprise when we noticed that a man and a woman were half undressed and had begun to copulate on the rear seats. The ‘pretend pipe smoker’ in front of us noticed our surprise and told us:

“Don’t worry. Eric and Jean can get a bit carried away sometimes. You see they’re both married to other people, and they don’t often get the chance to be together. Live and let live, eh? I find it’s best just to turn a blind eye.”

Derek and I nodded grimly, wondering what else was going to happen.

“I’m forever blowing bubbles,” sang out another, quite beautiful, male voice from somewhere near the back of the coach. “Pretty bubbles in the air. . .”

He finished his rendition, then produced a child’s bubble-blowing kit from his pocket and proceeded to produce clouds of lovely bubbles that filled the coach. As one of them hit a lady nearby she started screaming and batting at her hair angrily. She went on screaming and shouting for a long time.

Derek was deep in conversation with a woman in the seat behind him. She was telling him that a man had proposed marriage to her the previous day but that she’d warned him off, telling him that it would be unwise, since “madness runs in my family – if we had children they might be idiots.”

I was certainly glad to reach Haggisburn, wondering what other insane things were going to happen. Derek and I staggered off the coach, relieved to see our nice ‘organiser in chief’, resourceful bespectacled Alison, who was cuddly and kind and always did a grand job. She was busily checking our names against the list.

“It makes no odds now, but you two took the wrong coach,” she said, smiling. “Didn’t you realise that?”

“Of course we realised it!” Derek told her, appearing to be shell-shocked. “My goodness, what a surreal experience! Blimey, I wouldn’t want to go through that again.”

“Oh well, no harm done.” Alison looked down her list and up at the coach that was fast approaching behind ours. “Things could have been a lot worse for you. After all you might have had the bad luck to have found yourselves travelling with the psychiatric patients. Luckily you landed up in the coach with the doctors and nurses who are looking after them for the day.”

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