Back in nineteen-eighty-something I made a faintly public spectacle of myself by having a bout of the giddy-fits whilst alone in a gathering of relative strangers. Ah, loneliness is a crowded room… By which I mean to say I was in a university residence’s TV common room, seated on my own, with other people unknown to me there in twos and threes. (This set-up is taking too long.) Dallas was on. Possibly Dynasty. I get the two mixed up as I do Claudia and Davina. Or Tess and Gaby. There was a scene in a restaurant, the two main characters in an intense exchange – not as a Saatchi as such, but the dialogue was moving their relationship on. (Seriously, way too long.) In the space between the two characters we could see through to another couple at the back of the restaurant. These were extras, and they were pretending to be having a meal. As the scene played out I realised I was paying more, in fact all of my attention to them, rather than to the star characters up front. The suited gentleman diner on the left, his female companion to our right, I began to absorb the extras’ movements and mouthed conversation. And then I transposed an action upon them which although I clearly only imagined, is as visually real and true and marvelous as if easily streamed as a video clip today: I imagined Mister Extra picking up a spoon and doing the balancing-it-on-the-end-of-his-nose trick, arms spread out in a ‘Ta-Da!’; and her applauding prettily. At which point I had my giddy-fit of laughter, made all the more inwardly, red-faced hilarious by the near-church-like atmosphere that was the norm in the TV room.
Well, that could have been the moment – not medically speaking, I don’t think, but the beginning of a lifelong inclination towards watching the extras at work.
Extras-awareness isn’t an uncommon state; there are blogs and TV culture sites awash with casual observation and commentary on the subject. So if there’s anything that’s a teeny bit distinctive about my angle, it’s that I simply and consistently delight in their very existence, to the point where my Soap-sourced reactions are complex and multi-layered; physiological, jerky, emotional and sad.
I’m pretty sure this isn’t about the actors, the ‘real people’ themselves. I know about those people and their dreamy hopes. Rather it’s about the surreal roles they play, and how the very playing of them makes them impossible backgrounds.
David Mitchell, in his Back Story, writes:
This is what is so sad for extras (or ‘supporting artists’ as they’re now known) on TV. Most of them want to be actors and for that to happen they think, quite reasonably, that they need to get noticed. But in 99 per cent of situations where extras are used, they’re not supposed to be noticeable – not individually anyway… If any one of them does anything to make you look at them, he or she has already made a mistake. As an extra, if you do your job well, no one will notice.
(Back Story, A Memoir, Harper Collins 2012)
The problem with this is that not being noticed typically means being silent. And in social situations where verbal exchanges are the norm, then muteness is by default a massive flare of daftness. I think it’s a fairly common understanding that speaking actors cost money, so shows like East Enders and Corrie stick to budget by having noddingly and mimingly satisfied punters at the wine bar or the nail bar, against foregrounds of gusto and cackles from the characters we’re only supposed to be fixed on.
I am shocked into shame when a newly coiffeured pensioner leaves Audrey’s salon with a series of wobble-headed grins and an googly expression like there’s a bee on the tip of her nose – or a spoon, obviously – before flouncing and bobbing and waving her unheard toodle-oos – and then that’s me done for the rest of the programme; wanting the silent old lady to reappear in a later scene, face against the window, to complete her fantastical gurns with an impeccably mimed breaking of wind, and the resultant mock-horror and wafting that ensues.
If the writers and directors want me to believe anything other could happen – to remain focussed and credulous about the ‘main event’ – then they shouldn’t try to palm me off with backgrounds of such exquisite pantomimic silliness.
But I’m so glad they do.
Next time on ‘Extras, Extras, Read All About It!’, why cats don’t get their tongue, and some other stuff broadly relating.
© Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2013