x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The life of an actor is to pretend that I have a respectable job

Actors are viewed as feckless, loose-living ne'er-do-wells with few morals and even fewer scruples, who are to be treated with caution when we are not standing in doublet and hose spouting Shakespearean sonnets.

It was the architect and philosopher Frank Lloyd Wright who famously said: "A professional is someone who does his best work when he feels least like working." His words have been much on my mind after noticing a headline in The Stage, the actors' weekly trade paper in the UK: Outrage as passport office says 'acting is not a proper job'.

According to the article, a jobbing thespian, Michael Sheldon, had provided a reference on a passport application for his daughter's boyfriend, which was subsequently turned down because Mr Sheldon's profession - "actor" - was not regarded as suitable to qualify him as a reliable referee. The irony is that if professional competence were a true yardstick of respectability, most actors would pass with flying colours while those who guard the ports and airports would soon be looking for another job.

Last November, the head of the UK border force, Brodie Clarke, was forced to resign after it was discovered that checks at Heathrow Airport for arriving passengers had been temporarily relaxed to relieve congestion at passport control.

Then only last month, it was revealed that the biometric chip scanners installed at a number of ports had been deactivated on no fewer than 14,800 occasions between January and June of last year. Another half a million individuals travelling by Eurostar entered the country unchecked.

You might have thought that such blunders would have been enough to ensure that anyone claiming to be a "passport officer" would blush with shame. Yet it's actors such as Mr Sheldon and his like (including yours truly) who are seen as vagabonds and wastrels.

The reality for those who work in showbiz is that while we're welcome at parties (perennial questions include: "Have I seen you on the telly?" and "How do you learn your lines?"), we're regarded as akin to axe murderers.

Actors are viewed as feckless, loose-living ne'er-do-wells with few morals and even fewer scruples, who are to be treated with caution when we are not standing in doublet and hose spouting Shakespearean sonnets.

The truth of this was demonstrated to me years ago when, as a young actor and having just passed my driving test and acquired my first car, I tried to get motor insurance. When I visited the offices of a well-known firm, the young man behind the desk was initially delighted to help me fill in the application - name, age, type of cover required, etc - but all this changed once we reached the box marked "occupation".

"I"m an actor," I said proudly, already anticipating his response (surely, "Have I seen you on the telly?" and "How do you learn your lines?"). Instead, a cloud appeared over his hitherto sunny features.

"Ah, that may be a problem," he answered. "I'm afraid I'll have to refer your request to my supervisor." He picked up the telephone and muttered something to a mysterious presence on the other end.

There then followed a series of questions from my unseen interrogator, each of which had to be relayed to me by the young man at the desk, with my answers laboriously copied out onto the form. Do I work in theatre or film? Am I a leading actor or a supporting one? Can I describe my last three jobs and how many lines did I have in each role?

I gritted my teeth and answered each politely, all the while trying to suppress the desire to ask what on earth any of this had to do with my ability to steer a car.

Finally we got to an even more fatuous query: "My supervisor wants to know if are you are appearing in anything at the moment?"

"Yes, a play in the West End," I answered flintily. He relayed this down the phone to his boss. "My supervisor would like to know what your part entails." he continued.

"It involves me squirting a soda siphon up a Scotsman's kilt!" I replied with barely suppressed rage.

"My supervisor wishes to know whether it is a drama or a comedy?"

"It's a bloody farce!!" I roared, "And so is this!" With which I flounced noisily out the door, vowing never to return.

A few days later, however, I did so, but this time clad in a smart suit and polished shoes, rather than the jeans and trainers of my first foray. Luckily, someone else was at the desk.

"Occupation?" he asked.

"Drama teacher," I replied mildly.

"Ah, teacher! Excellent," he purred. Moments later I was departing with 12 months of motor insurance in my hand.

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London