The Chief, British Rail, and My End

the chief

I had mentioned doing an episode of The Chief in a previous post Name Dropping Pt 6 Stanley Kubrick, that was the last of my “extra” jobs for my duo of agents in Norwich. It was actually a great morning out.

It paid over £125 for just a half days work and I was “upgraded” from background artiste to getting a bit of business to do in front of the camera. The episode was going to be the opener for season 3 and the plot centred round a bomber. I played an Inspector from the CID who showed a picture of the suspect to an informer and then passed him a few pounds for his trouble.

The Chief was actor Martin Shaw‘s next long running TV series. Shaw, who had made a name for himself in the long running 1970’s television show The Professionals, played the second fiddle in the show until season 3 where he was promoted to the Chief position of the title.

Typically, I did not get a chance to meet him or any of the other “names” in the show. I did get to work with a Shakespearean actor who was appearing in Norwich at the time. He was a lovely chap and we rehearsed our “bit of business” over and over until we could do it without dropping either the photograph that he was meant to look at or the money which I was meant to give him. The director was very pleased that we’d rehearsed on our own and the shot was done in two takes, the second in case the angle was wrong.

I then shook hands with my co-worker and they moved a bit further down and did the second scene without yours truly. I was done. I’d had a glut of bacon sarnies, met A.J. Quinn the director and both of the assistant directors and spent a very pleasant summer morning in a riverside pub in Norwich. Most importantly my ranking as an extra had gone up the scale.

I don’t know where the paperwork is, in a file somewhere I’m sure as I always saved these types of things, but you got a sheet with your pay packet that explained what you did for the production. There were three different “ranks” of extra. It numbered from one to three. A one had nothing to do but be there, either standing about or sitting, you were used to “fill” the scene. A two had something to actually do and you got props to play with, in my case a 50 pound note and a photograph. A three had a line or two. Each rank paid a bit more than the others with the “one” paying best.

*I may have the “rank” backward (it was a long time ago) but the breakdown is correct regardless of the order*

After the job, I’d managed to acquire a London agent and I wrote both agents to let them know I did not require their services any longer. There was no wailing and rending of clothes at my departure, they had a long line of folks who were eager to work as a supporting artiste. The only thing my absence from their books really meant was that I was out of work for a very long time.

My new agent helped to get my mush into Spotlight which was (and still is as far as I know) the UK casting director’s bible. We splashed for a ½ page ad and I waited for the offers to come flooding in.

Part of my half-page ad in Spotlight…a million years ago.

I did get a few offers, but the business was going through a slump. I got a call out for one of those “cinema” adverts with no luck. I’ve already written about my close call with Stanley Kubrick; and I won’t even mention the “vocal coaching tape” I did for what I later found out was to be a porn film.

I did get to meet a few folks and my agent was doing his best. I got a call out of the blue from him. He has a client that had shortlisted me for a role in a Japanese company’s training film. I would go to a hotel conference room in South Kensington and walk around the room carrying a briefcase and delivering my lines in my “native” tongue. According to my agent, it was dead certain that they would pick me.

I was over the moon. I grabbed my one suit and got it cleaned. I checked on the train times to London. I could either go the night before and crash at my agent’s house or I could take a train in the morning. Morning was more convenient and it was decided that night that my daughter would accompany me.

I am pretty sure that I have written about this day before, but I’ll be damned if I can find it. So I’ll trot the abysmal mess out one more time.

By the time I’d argued with my then wife, gotten my daughter ready and took the bus down to the train, we had only one train we could get to London and still meet the audition time. We broke all speed records purchasing the tickets and we were the first people on the train. As we settled ourselves the train started powering up to draw away; then it stopped. It powered up again and it stopped. This went on for ten minutes.

Finally the train stopped making any noise at all and a member of British Rail’s staff came down the aisles and told everyone that as the dining car was broken, this particular train would not be going to London; everyone would have to take the next train. Sorry for the inconvenience, blah blah, blah didi blah.

I was horrified. The next train was not due for another twenty minutes. Add that to the train journey and the time spent crossing London through the underground to Kensington and there was no way that I was going to make the audition in time. Panic stricken, I grabbed my daughter Meg up and ran with her to the nearest pay phone.

I rang my agent and explained the situation. The other end of the phone was silent. I could feel his anger (well rage really) and disappoint me all the way through the phone. “There’s nothing for it,” he said, “I can’t ring them as they’ve started the auditions already. If you show up late they won’t see you. We’ll have to give this one a miss.” He then rang off without saying goodbye.

I then got my ticket refunded and Meg and I slunk home. I was more depressed than words could describe and I was in the blackest of moods. A shot time later, my agent’s wife died and I went to see him and express my deepest sympathy, she’d been a lovely lady and had been in the original cast of the radio show The Archers.

My agent treated me to tea and we had a long chat. He was amazed that my then wife did not support my forays into the business and I believe that the wheels started turning in his head even then. Not long after he sent me a short note to ask about new pictures for Spotlight. My missus insisted that we could not afford any new photos and that was that.

I spun some yarn about it being too pricey my end and said that the next time I was in London I’d find a cheaper photographer. My agent wasn’t having any of it. He sent me a letter two weeks to the day after my porky pie (lie) about the photos. He dropped me. I was not surprised. The lovely man had paid for my advert to run for another two years after I’d place the initial advert. With me earning absolute bugger all, he’d gambled that I would find work and give him a return on his investment.

To say that I was suicidal is not an understatement nor is it an exaggeration. After I received his letter, I sat down and put all my back pain medication out in front of me. I opened every packet and put them in little piles; one for the diazepam; one for the codeine; one for the Tramadol; and two more for the muscle relaxants and the anti depressants.

Before I could take too many, my then wife asked me what she was supposed to tell our daughter. That stopped me. I knew that what I was doing was wrong and unfair, not to mention pretty damned stupid. So I stopped and we rang the hospital to get my stomach pumped.

I had not taken many so the pump was unnecessary. The shrink who talked to me asked was it a cry for help and I said yes and left it at that. It was more than a cry for help though; it was a wail of anguish at a dream ended; a scream of anger and disappointment so deep that I never really recovered from it. I did not die that day, be it was the end of me. I was never the same nor could I even try to be.

When I hear the phrase “the living dead” I smile. I know exactly what they mean, I lived it. But time heals all wounds and eventually I rediscovered my need to be creative and my first love, writing. I am no longer a living dead person and the journey of rediscovery is long and slow but, hopefully, worth the trip.

Down but not out…yet.

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

4 thoughts on “The Chief, British Rail, and My End”

  1. We were watching a rerun of “Cybill” last night, a show we enjoyed while it was airing originally. Cybill Shepherd has talent. She was beautiful, funny, well-known and has a great voice. Her shows were popular, but her personal life brought her down. Burt Reynolds’ career took the same dive for the same reasons, his show “Evening Shade” falling victim to divorce.

    Unsympathetic mates who can’t or won’t support their partners’ career are lethal. It got me thinking that anyone planning on a career that isn’t a standard office job better think carefully about the kind of partner he/she marries. If you don’t get the support at home, you’re doomed from the get-go. Garry and I were lucky with each other. I think Garry would have made it anyhow … he was intensely career-focused for so long which is why he was unmarried for so long (48 is late for a first marriage!). Regardless, a partner who doesn’t back you, doesn’t cheer you on, doesn’t help can strangle a career, slowly or quickly. You see it amongst “big” stars and amongst we little folks too.

    Too soon old, too late shmart!


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