For a long time, especially while work too me to a new part of the country every couple of years, acting was a big part of my life – not least as it got me off camp, into the local community, and meant I could quickly build up a circle of friends ‘outside the wire’. Producing plays had its own ‘vintage’ aspect to it, as many were, by default, set in the past which gave someone like me the chance to think about everything from room decor and furniture, through props and costumes, down to background music. Anyway, all that’s for a future article. What prompted this one was the re-release on DVD of one of the feature films that I got involved in as a spin-off when we dipped our toe into the world of the film extra…
When a group of us from our local amateur theatre club signed up with a local talent agency, we resigned ourselves to the fact that our most likely exposure would be in the background of an episode of a TV drama; we’d never have dreamed that 20 years later our names would regularly be rolling up the screen as cast members in a film that’s been shown countless times and is now on its second DVD release. The call for extras for The Ghost of Greville Lodge was a slightly odd one, though – there would be no pay, as the production budget couldn’t run to it, but the carrot was that the producers were looking for more than just background-filling bodies and so we’d be used as minor characters in the story. Given that we were all into this for the experience rather than the money, it was an attractive proposition, so we all rejigged our diaries to be available for the first day of shooting for which we were needed. Ahead of the day, we were informed that we’d be playing guests at a dinner party set in 1940, as we went equipped with bits of suitable costume. Even better, we were asked if one of us would make a suitable butler; I don’t know if it was my servile bearing, or just the fact that I happened to own a vintage set of tails, but my name went forward.
From our arrival on the set at Chavenage Manor, just outside Stroud in Gloucestershire, we were made to feel part of the cast, in sharp contrast to the usual extra experience of ‘right, you lot, go and stand over there until we need you’. We were each invited in turn into wardrobe and make-up to be transformed into our period selves, though in my case I was rather proud that the response was pretty much one of ‘Ah, yes – not much needed here!’ More importantly, Renown Pictures director Niall Johnson took time to explain what was going on and where the scenes we were filming sat in the overall story, and to introduce us to the core characters. It says a lot that his own parents were amongst the other extras – clearly, this was going to be a genuine team effort. As the icing on the cake (quite literally), we were fed and watered generously alongside the rest of the crew.
As with any piece of filming, the day was a long one, with long breaks between activity as each shot was set up. However, at each stage, Niall took the time to talk us through what was going on and what he needed from us, particularly where the camera would linger on us and our interaction with the lead characters. In their own turn, the lead actors treated us like equals. We were back on set later that evening for a night shoot to capture the exterior scenes leading on from the dinner party and the fire which marked the dramatic climax of the action. It was a beautifully clear night, with the temperature dropping close to freezing – hard work for the (thankfully brief) times we were waiting for the cameras to roll but making for some wonderfully atmospheric moments as the floodlights caught the wisps of mist in the Manor’s grounds. This was the point where my butler character came into his own as the action required me to join the father character, played by Christian Rodska, in dragging his son, James, clear of the burning building. In a gesture typical of the generosity of the company, Christian asked my name as the scene was being lined up, and if you listen really carefully as the action unfolds, you’ll hear him call my name as he summons the butler to help him.
For the rest of my extra comrades, the filming ended there but I had the additional excitement of joining cast and crew on a Sunday afternoon at Cheltenham Film Studios to film the fire scene interiors. With gas pipes running all over the floor of the set representing a manor house library, there was inevitably an awful lot of setting up, but when the cameras started to roll, there was some genuine adrenaline in the air as the actors threw themselves around, getting realistically close to the flames to ensure the scene came across. Fortunately for me, I needed to come no closer than the other side of the open window, reaching in to grab ‘James’ and haul him clear. Fortunately, with my own dose of adrenaline flowing, young actor Jon Newman was light enough for me to drag convincingly through the window without his having to help me!
We really didn’t expect to hear much more from the production company, apart, perhaps from news that it had been completed, so we were completely taken aback to get invitations to the first screening party to be held at a venue on the Bristol docks complex on a Sunday afternoon. Once again, the production name treated principal cast and extras as equally important in the creation of the film, right down to including us all by name in the credits – more importantly, we were all delighted by the finished product when we saw how our 1940s segment fitted into the wider story. Life moved on, and we somehow missed its release; jump forward to the run-up to Christmas 2003 and I’m sitting in a tent in southern Iraq, a month into a four-month operational tour, leafing through the TV listings for a Christmas season I’d be missing, and I spot The Ghost of Greville Lodge amongst the films due to premiere on one of the satellite channels. Cue frantic messages home to get those with the right subscriptions to set their video recorders – for the first time in my life I’m on prime time TV in an acting role, and I’m thousands of miles away!
Of course, since then, it’s been released on DVD, has been on TV for pretty much every Halloween and Christmas season, and has now found a new home on Talking Pictures TV – where you can find it this year on New Year’s Eve. I don’t always watch it, but every time I do, I’m reminded again how much we enjoyed the experience, how proud we all were of the results and, of course, that frisson when Clive the Butler strides into action.
And as to that second movie, I’ll write about that another time!