In this blog a couple of days ago, Ricky Gervais’ TV series Extras was mentioned. I had not realised that comedy scriptwriter Mark Kelly – an occasional popper-upper in this blog – had, at one time, been a real TV extra.
He also used to perform stand-up under the name Mr Nasty.
“In the 1980s,” he told me this week, “on the alternative cabaret circuit, I did this song with a chorus of Hi-de-Hi! and people never realised it was written from bitter personal experience.
“I was living near Colchester, playing in a band and quite happy doing that and weird theatre and signing on (for Unemployment Benefit).
“I had an Equity card, because I had been with a fringe theatre group years earlier when Granada TV made a documentary about the group.
“In those days, Equity was a closed shop and you had to sweat blood to get an Equity card. It was very difficult to get, but I got one with no effort at all.
“I was with this group called RAT Theatre who were based in Stoke-on-Trent and Granada TV were making this documentary on them. It wasn’t an Equity theatre group, but it was just assumed I had an Equity card and, when Granada realised I didn’t, one of the production team just came up to me, gave me a form and said: Sign this; we’ll send it off. I didn’t even fill it in; I just signed the form and, by return post, got an Equity card.”
“If it was a documentary,” I asked, “why did you need an Equity card?”
“Because it included performance. Anyway, I had an Equity card and the consequence was I ended up appearing in Hi-de-Hi!
“At the time, there was a shortage of extras – who had to be Equity members – in East Anglia. So all of us who had Equity cards and were signing-on got forced to go along.
“Hi-de-Hi was filmed at Warners Holiday Camp in Dovercourt near Harwich. They filmed two series a year out-of-season, so it was usually pretty cold and you’d dread the swimming pool scenes. The main cast would have people standing by with warm dressing gowns and towels; we would have nothing.
“The way (producer) David Croft cast his series was quite interesting. For the pilot of the first series, they would quite often have characters who would then be written out. They would throw in more people than they needed to see what worked. They would try characters out and, if they didn’t work or were too close to another character in comedy terms, they would get rid of someone.
“They also had quite big casts. One of the consequences of this was, because they had quite a large recognisable main cast and then a slightly recognisable lower-level cast, it meant there was very little money left for anyone else. So they would go to what felt like somewhat absurd lengths to make sure you didn’t speak – because, if you spoke, they had to pay you a lot more.
“I was cast as a walk-on which meant I got no lines but I did get ‘directed movements’, which meant I got repeat fees. Until a few years ago, when Equity did a dreadful ‘buy-out’ deal, I still got repeat fees which, once or twice, actually came in really handy and bailed me out.
“I came with the opposite attitude to most of the extras. Most of the extras wanted to be in showbusiness and wanted to be seen on camera. I didn’t particularly want to be seen on camera. What I wanted to do was sit in the canteen and read. I became very adept very quickly at knowing how they set up scenes and all the reverse angles they were likely to do and positioning myself so I would not be needed for other shots.
“The irony of this – which I had not actually thought through – is that what they do NOT want from extras and walk-ons is for them to become recognisable visible characters. So, by hardly ever being in shot, I actually prolonged my shelf life and I was in six – possibly seven – series of Hi-de-Hi. So, although I am present in every episode, apart from on two or three occasions, you would need a freeze-frame and zoom-in to see me.
“There was one series where I was a teddy boy, which I quite liked, and there was one costume I actually tried to buy off them. Jeffrey Holland plays the character Spike and one of the running gags in the series is that, in most episodes, he will appear usually looking harassed in some stupid costume that he has been forced to wear.
“In this particular episode, it was a liquorice allsorts costume, including a head, all completely made of liquorice allsorts. It wasn’t that heavy, you could move in it OK and it wasn’t too hot to wear and he was approximately the same size as me. But the BBC would not sell it to me.
“In those days, I was doing a very ‘hard’ Communist politics set. Had I got hold of this costume, I would – doing alternative cabaret as Mr Nasty in London – have gone on stage wearing this liquorice allsorts costume. To me, that’s what I am about. I love the idea of saying what I actually believe but deliberately undercutting it and making it seem absurd at the same time. I think that is the essence of comedy.
“Maybe I should still do something like that. I have always thought that Lenny Bruce would have been enormously improved if he had gone on stage as Bertie Bassett. I seriously do because, otherwise, it’s comodificaion. People like certain things to go together. So, if you are going to be Lenny Bruce, even if you’ve got money, they like you to look as if you haven’t got money.
“If you are going to do hard, Leftist politics, why not just go on and be completely absurd? What’s wrong with that? If you are actually saying – which I do believe, like Tony Benn – that it’s about the issues not the personality, then let’s test this theory. Listen to what I am saying while I am looking ridiculous. If what I am saying has any value, then the fact I am looking ridiculous should not matter.”
“I would have paid more attention to Tony Benn,” I told Mark, “if he had come on as a pack of Polo Mints.”
There is a clip from Hi-de-Hi on YouTube.