MONOTONY ON THE BOUNTY
The first time I’d stood resplendent in a blue and gold naval uniform I was sharing a West End stage with Charlton Heston, who was enthralling audiences with his tormented portrayal of the steel ball-clicking Captain Queeg in ‘The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial’. (He was being paid £10,000 a week to my then-West End minimum of £150.00, just to clarify our professional relationship.) Regrettably, his stardom never rubbed off on me, and my standing in the theatrical profession remains ‘pre-successful’.
However, the uncertainty of the acting world dictates that performers must find work whenever and wherever it’s available. Some years later, during yet another prolonged professional Sahara, my next role as a bemedalled officer of the Senior Service saw me reluctantly starring in a half-hour video of the type purchased furtively in Soho and generally viewed alone with the remote control held in the left hand. Desperate for the money needed to complete the purchase of a new refrigerator, I played a naval captain with peculiar ideas of how naughty WRENS found sleeping on watch should be disciplined. I can honestly say that this was a textbook example of an actor hitting bottom in show business. (and if that piques your interest, scroll down and see the next article!)
Or so I thought until my most recent job- one which returned me, with depressing familiarity, to the Navy. The telephone call came when I was unsuccessfully attempting to remember what being in work felt like. I’d sent my details to a production company casting for a ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ docudrama. I felt my chances of bagging the lead might be good because the brief specified that the actor required to play Captain Bligh needed to have excellent 18th Century handwriting, and to be able to use a quill for the scenes in which he's seen writing in the ship’s log. By a happy coincidence, calligraphy is one of my hobbies, practiced for years in my copious free time; I mentioned this in my covering email. And long after I’d lost all hope of hearing from anyone, the casting director, named Poppy and so upper class as to be practically unintelligible rang me on my mobile.
I leapt to my feet like a convulsed springbok and immediately began a magnificent impersonation of Sir Charles Laughton's Captain Bligh menacing Clark Gable's Fletcher Christian in the classic 1935 original film. 'Thisss is MUUUUtiny, Misstah Chrisstiahn, end Eyee shyell see you hanged from the hiiiighest yahdahhmmm in the British Fhleeeett....'.
This was observed with considerable interest by my fellow patrons in the library.
'Ooohhh!', said Poppy, very impressed 'But ectually', she chirped,' Yah phowtograwf’s wanderful, but I’m afraid I looked et yah eppliceshun too lett to include you in the awdish’ns. Bligh's awlreddy cawst. Could you jahst do the hendwraiting?'
If an actor’s vocation is looking for work, and his vacation is performing, this so-called ‘holiday’ was going to be the equivalent of two weeks’ sojourn at a very rainy Butlin’s.
A few days later, with shining mo(u)rning face I presented myself promptly at my appointed calltime, and gazed up the gangplank of a full-sized replica of Sir Francis Drake’s flagship, the Golden Hinde, which is a permanent drydock exhibit in Southwark, London. I did not presume to question the two hundred year discrepancy ‘twixt Elizabethan seadogs and Georgian mutineers. Work is work, and I knew exactly on which side my hardtack was buttered.
Performers costumed as sailors and officers lolled about complaining about work and agents, smoking and gorging themselves on the free food which is always available on set. Every production company knows that the first thing to do with an actor is to feed it. In the very act of reaching for a cinnamon bun, I was promptly collared by a production assistant who marched me to the cellar of a nearby pub, where my quills and logbooks awaited.
My first glamorous day consisted of sitting at a makeshift desk in the corner of a somewhat damp basement, next to the Ladies’ Room. With a stack of photocopies of the original 18th century Admiralty documents about the Mutiny at my elbow, I spent several hours cutting feathers into pens and familiarizing myself with forging Bligh’s handwriting by copying his logbook and letters.
‘My dearest Betsy, I have lost the Bounty’, began one despairing missive to his wife, and I knew exactly how he felt, my career having been similarly wrenched from my grasp. Obviously Fletcher Christian was a former casting director seeking revenge in the only way he knew how, having been recognized, bludgeoned, and sent to sea by a ‘resting’ actor reduced to dayjobbing in a Naval Pressgang.
Next day, in the upstairs room of a pub this time, I strolled onto the set, the cameras rolled at last, and my ‘career’ is back on track. Nay, the clouds have been torn asunder, the sun blazes anew, and my unrequited love affair with the Muses has finally been consummated. I completed one day’s filming, starring as Captain Bligh's right hand, my talented wrist resplendently affecting the ornate blue and gold cuff of an 18th century officer in the Royal Navy. The camera, rolling behind my back and shooting over my right shoulder, captures the breathtaking drama of my sharpened goosefeather writing in the Bounty's logbook.
It is difficult to make an impact when one is reduced to playing a disembodied hand, but a truly gifted actor can manage it. So inspired was my performance that the only suggestion the director could possibly think of making for Take Two was ‘Would you mind cleaning your fingernails?’ I’ll wager my professional reputation that no hand in the entire history of cinema has ever dipped plume into inkwell so decisively, wielded a quill with such inspired flamboyance, or underlined the words ‘Two dozen lashes’ with more relish.
And had Steven Spielberg himself flown into town and begged to interview me for the lead in his next film during those two days, I would have had my agent inform him gently that I was far too busy acting. After all, one never knows what new doors are even now beginning to open.
I have many talented body parts- maybe someone’s casting a documentary about Casanova!
Never mind- that way divorce lies. But as soon as it’s edited, I shall be sending a DVD of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ to the producers of ‘The Addams Family’. The so-called ‘actor’ who has been doing such a pathetic job of playing ‘Thing’ in their last two films might as well let his fingers do the walking to the dole queue post haste.