Two in the bloody morning. I must be insane. I deliver a knockout blow to the alarm clock. I know it's not the clock's fault that I have to be up this early, but I have a tendency to shoot the messenger - especially when it's bleeping deafeningly in my ear. Fifteen minutes later I sit semi-conscious in the back of a minicab, en route to Hammersmith. Hurtling through the nonexistant early morning traffic at speeds I'm sure are less than legal helps me to shake off sleep. We arrive at the Hammersmith Apollo. I cough up my FORTY COCKING QUID cab fare, which actually feels like chopping off an arm and a leg and handing it to the driver. I now understand that expression. I exit the vehicle, my driver wishes me good luck. I'll need it. I hate my job.
Two of my companions have already arrived. Brave souls who, against all reason, got night buses. I consider myself a fairly bold chap, but even I balk at the idea of using public transport at this time of day - this hour belongs to the drunks, drug fiends gibbering demihuman things that shun the daylight and make their warrens in the darker recesses of ancient London - so I err on the side of safety, and safety costs me FORTY COCKING QUID. I hate my job.
Perhaps I should explain why I and my colleagues are in this place at such an hour, and not snoring the wee small hours away in our beds. I and they are film extras. We are waiting here to be picked up by a coach which will take us somewhere in Sussex, where we'll assume the roles of soldiers and civilians milling around a Paris railway station circa 1916, midway through the First World War. The film is called Flyboys and apparently features Star Wars alumnus Hayden Christensen, he who so sublimely portrayed Anakin Skywalker in the towering cinematic achievement that was Attack of the Clones and, come May, Revenge of the Sith. I would relish working with such a talent in any capacity, even as a lowly extra. Maybe I can get his autograph.
I'm joking of course. If I see the little puke I'll ruin those good looks of his faster than he ruined Darth Vader's street cred by playing him as a stereotypical whining adolescent attention-whore.
Here are the coaches. Anxious to get out of the cold, we pile into the smaller one, driven by a kindly-looking fat man, and make ourselves at home. The bad-tempered cockney driver of the other coach enters, furious at our fat guy. Apparently he shouldn't have let us in, because nobody's taken our names yet. Logically it's out of the question to do that whilst we're inside the coach, because that would be a considerate gesture - Cockney doesn't want that, because he's in a bad mood and so everyone else should be too. We object, but not to his face. He probably has the power to fire us. That's the thing with being an extra, even the bus driver can pull rank on you. We are ejected from Fat's coach, and transferred to Cockney's.
We're off, hurtling down the M25 en route to Sussex. Cockney, as if we needed any more proof of his status as a moody little bastard, refuses to turn the heating on. Well, he doesn't so much refuse as blatantly ignore multiple requests to turn it on from freezing passengers. Cockney, if you're reading this, you're a gobshite. And your penis is small. And you look like Most Haunted's psychic charlatan Derek Acorah.
Perhaps idle chit-chat with the others will warm me up. The conversation throws up this nugget of information: Ricky Gervais, of Office fame, is making a sitcom about film extras. Kudos to him, it can't be easy trying to make this job funny. I'm trying, seriously.
We are disgorged into a field in the middle of nowhere. It is still dark. There are no immediately apparent signs of there being a film crew encamped here. Was this all a trick? Are we going to be herded into this field and coldly machine-gunned as an example to other petulant extras, a-la The Great Escape? Thankfully no, the unit base camp was just hiding in the murk. We enter the wardrobe tent, and get suited up. I and several others are playing wounded French soldiers, bandages, dirt and all. After putting our uniforms on, we're escorted outside and presented to a crew member holding some curious-looking hand cranked device. Any speculation as to the thing's purpose is ended when the man starts cranking it, showering us head to toe with foul-smelling sticky theatrical mud. We will spend ten hours covered in this filth. Some of the clean people come over to mock us in our muddy splendour. We respond by attempting to hug them. No further remarks are made.
After breakfast, we're on our way to the location, a train station on the Bluebell Railway, which is a fully functioning vintage steam railway. For the first time in my life I see a real steam train puff its way into the station. I immediately want to ride on it. No time for that now though, someone has just called out for all the soldiers to come to the props trailer to be armed! Fantastic! Two years doing this job and finally I get some artillery.
Wrong. None of us French losers gets a gun, because we're losers. All the black guys in our group, dressed up as Algerian soldiers, get neat bolt-action rifles. Man, I wish I was black. What do we get? Hats. Christ, no wonder we lost.
Filming begins. Action! Apparently. I can't really tell because I can't see. I have been arbitrarily picked to be a blinded soldier, and have a bandage over my eyes. I am assigned a guide, a very likeable extra named John. John is neat. He talks gibberish to me during the filming, attempting to make me laugh. He succeeds. I turn the laughter into tears, and give a powerful performance. I'll get him back later.
A train full of ordinary tourists pulls into the station. None of them have prior knowledge of the filming, and so look suitably dumbfounded when they see a station populated by people from 1916. We wave. As the train leaves, steam fills the air on the platform. In one of the most cinematic moments I've ever experienced outside of a cinema, a French policeman in a long coat strides from the fog like a ghost from the past, and for a few seconds I'm hundreds of miles away, eighty years ago. I like my job.
Lunchtime! Drinks all round. Sitting outside in the sunlight sipping apple juice and listening to the birds sing, I forget for a while that I'm weighed down by coat and boots and tin helmet and covered in shit. Wait a second, is that Bob Hoskins? It is! It's Bob Hoskins! With a beard! He's been cornered by a female American extra, who is banging on at him about how children aren't bought up right in this country. She obviously doesn't realise she's talking to the dramatic powerhouse who bought Super Mario to life. She's lucky he doesn't jump on her head and kill her, then collect a powerup from her corpse. As it is, he's being very tolerant. Then, the resident on-set lothario, who I will call Ugly Short Guy Who Tells Unfunny Jokes, inadvertantly comes to Bob's rescue when he attempts to put the moves on Whining American. Bob uses the distraction to leg it, with a "rather you than me, mate" expression on his adorable, pudgy little face. I like my job.
Back on set, myself and John team up with a smartly dressed chinese guy whom we dub Inspector Crowley, after one of the trains. We embark on hijinks between takes, and plan to serruptitiously insert a kung fu fight into the film. During one of numerous takes, I manage to make John laugh, with the aid of my grotesque front teeth. Revenge! I successfully rid myself of my blind-guy bandages. When quizzed about their absence by the wardrobe man, I deny everything and say he must be looking for another extra who I have just cunningly made up and looks a bit like me. He falls for it. I am the master of deception! Ugly Short Guy Who Tells Unfunny Jokes continues to work his slimy magics with Bob Hoskins' American nemesis.
I'm now put on a stretcher, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand I get paid for lying down, but on the other I'm plopped down on the platform with my head perilously close to where the trains come in. It is quite an experience to have one's head several inches away from a huge moving steam train. The sound of the engine is beyond deafening, and the steam engulfs me. To make it worse, I really need the toilet. Badly. Still, I can use the discomfort to dramatic effect - I am, afterall, meant to be wounded and in horrible agony. Still, I hate my job.
Two hours later, salvation. It's time to get cleaned up, get paid and go home. We file into the wardrobe tent, and disrobe. I frantically strip off my mud-caked clownsuit, don my real clothes, then go to makeup to get my filth removed. I later find out I was the only person who actually realised we were getting this stuff cleaned off - I see other people quite casually walking to their cars to drive home still covered in blood and muck. Perhaps they mean to scare the living daylights out of other motorists. Ugly Short Guy Who Tells Unfunny Jokes appears to have won the heart of the Whiny American - they are exchanging digits. I wish them well, and hope they run off together to produce a litter of Ugly Short Americans Who Whine And Tell Unfunny Jokes. I bid farewell to John. If you're reading, John, thanks for keeping me sane. And keep your beard, it's rugged and manly. Back on the coach I go, homeward bound. On the journey home, I mull over the day and the memories I've gained from it, but also the regrets: A) I didn't get to ride on a train, and B) I didn't get to beat up Anakin Skywalker. Oh well. I get home and collapse on my bed, and do not get up until an hour ago.
It occurs to me that I haven't actually looked at my payslip yet, so I fish the crumpled document out of my bag and see how much money I earned for a day's honest toil...
I like my job.
- © Benneth isnit.