A few years ago I had a job working on a popular Australian TV show. This one had captured the imagination of many foolish English people, some of whom used to make a pilgrimage to the often used locations in the hope of snatching a glimpse of their favourite stars, or even just to have a picture taken in front of the surf club on the Northern Peninsula where much of the ‘action’ was set.
This position had come to me by pure chance, I was acquainted with the person who was doing the job already, he wanted to leave, and I…? Well, I was at another of the many crossroads in my life, where the previous random thing I was doing , whatever it was, had run out of road, and I was ready to grab any suggestion that appeared because I was devoid of inspiration, always.
The last statement deserves some clarification or expansion. Ever since I was sixteen, and the brutal facts pushed aside the schoolboy comic-book fantasy of my presumed career choice, joining the army, I had been left directionless. The way I had drifted into smoking dope and experimenting with other drugs had assisted in the generally aimlessness of my existence, so each time some well-meaning person suggested something I would just do it because there was never anything better going on. In this way, I bounced like a pinball through life, usually living someone else’s dream.
At the time mentioned above I was floating along, living hand to mouth because I never had any savings or plans. Any money I earned would soon disappear in the pub where the people I mixed with seemed as aimless as me. I say seemed because they really weren’t, I now realise that they went home and got on with stuff, I only saw them when they were relaxing. In fact, I was the only one who was relaxed all the time. So one day my well-meaning sister, a person whose suggestions had caused more forward movement in my life than anything I had ever decided for myself, suggested that I enrol at university as a mature-age student. I was mature in age but nothing else, as you may have gathered already. Having nothing better to do I signed up for a course.
At this exact time, I met the person who was engaged in the role of unit assistant on the totally rubbish TV show, and when I said that I was going to attend university on a part time basis, he became very enthusiastic about me taking over his job. He explained that it was perfect for someone doing what I planned to do because it was a part time job but due to the hours it paid full time money. The hours of work were from very early morning until early afternoon, but by 9am most days the duties were finished and the rest of the day could be used by an eager student for study. He said it was perfect, I had no plan, so I said yes.
Had I known what was to come I probably would have thought twice, but if I had done that I wouldn’t have been me so that is a pointless avenue of speculation.
The job entailed going to the TV studio on a Sunday afternoon, loading up the costumes into the wardrobe and make up vehicle, a converted full-sized city bus, collecting the location schedule and scripts for the location shoots the following week, hooking up the generator to the tow-bar so it was ready for the week. Location days were Monday to Wednesday with the occasional Thursday or night-shoot thrown in. Monday morning I would pick up the bus from the studio and drive to the location specified on the schedule. There were many locations which were used regularly, these were easy. The surf club mentioned earlier, a school, a farm which was out in the bush, miles from anywhere, you get the idea. The show was set in a seaside town in rural Australia, the regular locations were used to establish this fact.
Then there were the locations which were found by the location scouts the previous week following the requirements set out by the show’s writers and producers. These location surveys were carried out in a 4WD vehicle, and from what I can gather they involved many stops in pubs and restaurants for expense account meals and drinks. The results were laughable. While the locations were easily accessible for the idiots on scouting missions, it seemed they rarely considered the fact that the massive bus with generator trailer in tow had to drive down rutted, winding tracks for the first time at 4am in pitch black, with no turning places if things went wrong, which they often did. It was not only the bus, the location shoots had to be fully catered, so the caterer’s truck also had to get down these narrow dirt tracks. If I was lucky, Tony, the caterer during my stint on the show, would get there first and have the decency to wander back to the main road and help me manoeuvre the vehicle in.
My first duty was to set up the generator to get the bus and caterer’s truck powered up, so by rights I should always have been there first. The unit assistant should be first there and last to leave, but Tony was a real pro and I would not have lasted even as long as I did without his tireless support.
Tony Elmore deserves a proper mention here. A totally decent man, Kiwi, surfer, and Christian. We won’t hold that last bit against him because he was such a gentleman. We were forced into a very close working relationship, and Tony, like most Kiwis, was an extremely practical man who could turn his hand to any task. If the generator went wrong he could always work out what was wrong with it, when the bus got a flat tyre in the middle of the bush he helped me fit the spare. Really not an easy task this one, there was a six-foot scaffold tube in the bus to increase the leverage on the wrench enough to get the wheel nuts loose. He made the menus for the cast and crew, and with his assistants he prepared some delicious food in some very remote places. We met at the location and set up the parking area for the first wardrobe call, then he got the coffee on.
If the bus wasn’t ready for first call there was hell to pay. The show was a proper sausage factory, turning out five complete episodes each week of the production schedule. If you have seen what goes into an effort like that you will understand the pressure everyone was under, particularly on location. As I described before, my task on Sunday afternoons was to load the bus with all the gear on the list, this was all about continuity, if something wasn’t there it could mean missing the deadline for the day. Once loaded I was supposed to make sure everything was locked down for travel. The makeup chairs were on castors so had to be tied in place or they could destroy the benches in the makeup area of the bus as we went around corners. On at least one occasion I was late and hadn’t secured the stuff in the back, I drove much too fast to arrive in time for first call and the bus was chaos. All the clothes fell off the racks, the draws came out of the makeup stations and all the shit was spread everywhere. By some miracle I imposed some order before deadline but it was only with the collusion of one of the only makeup artists that wasn’t a complete cunt that I got away with it.
Tony nursed me through times like that with a gentle sense of humour that was a breath of fresh air in the environment of pomposity that typified the TV and film industry. A couple of years after I left the show Tony chucked it in also, he became much happier when he was away from the hypocritical arseholes on that show.
My stint on the show lasted the extent of one six month production run, it was stressful and high pressured, the atmosphere was a cross between apathy and desperation as the cast and crew realising they were at the very bottom of their chosen field, tried frantically to parley it into something with a brighter future.
There were a few very decent people in cast and crew, but they were outnumbered by the other type, and I couldn’t help getting on the wrong side of the wrong people. I have never been very socially accomplished and the environment of a TV set was far from easygoing, inevitably, I rubbed some people up the wrong way.
There were some of the established characters on the show, which had passed it’s one thousandth episode before I had arrived, and there were the other, younger, actors who did a stint and passed on to, they hoped, better things. A few of these have become well known, most have disappeared into obscurity. The older and more established cast members were the ones that the storylines were built around, and because the show had been sold internationally, they were important to the continuity of the revenue to the studio. This though was the extent of their importance, and while some accepted this with dignity and humour, others milked it for all it was worth.
There was one character in particular, he was the headmaster of the school in the show and he thought he was something special. The crew laughed at him behind his back because of his pomposity and attitude of self-importance, they didn’t let it show because he couldn’t take a joke, so fragile was his ego.
One of my duties as the unit assistant was to provide toilet facilities for the set. Everywhere we went there was a portable toilet which was towed from the studio by one of the production vehicles, and on many of the locations there were proper toilets too, so I had to allocate toilets and make sure they were stocked with the necessary paper and hand washing materials. There was also a toilet on the wardrobe and make-up bus. It was a little cubicle like a boat toilet with a sliding door, barely big enough to seat an adult, the people who had fitted out the bus as a film and TV vehicle had deemed it unnecessary to fit an extractor fan. Everyone knew not to use the toilet on the bus unless it was an overwhelming emergency, and never to pass solids because the sound could be clearly heard in all areas of the bus, and the smell would hang around for hours.
The running joke, however, was that the headmaster would use the toilet on the bus to do a poo every time he was on location, and although the jokes were good natured enough, they were made through gritted teeth by the wardrobe and makeup people who had to suffer his bowel movements. It was as if he was oblivious to the fact that everyone could hear his straining and that the stench would follow him out like a brown wraith.
One day we were filming on location at a scout hall, the storyline was about a talent show or something like that, but it was a big day because there were many extras needed in order to provide an audience. This stretched the wardrobe and makeup people to their limits, there were racks of costumes all around the bus and there were extra makeup people drafted in to get the scenes completed in the day allotted for it. With the crowds passing through the bus there were jokes being made about the toilet, and how terrible it would be if someone were to do a poo in there while it was so packed. The headmaster was due to appear in several of the scenes, so there was a fair degree of certainty that he, at least, would do the usual.
There were excellent toilet facilities in the scout hall, in fact, there were two separate toilet blocks, so this gave me the unprecedented opportunity to allocate one block for the exclusive use of the ‘stars’ while the other could be open for the plebs. As a precaution I placed a hastily penned sign on the sliding door of the bus toilet requesting that no one use this toilet for number twos as the extractor was not functional. You’d think there’d be no problem with such a surfeit of toilets, think again.
Unusually for the show, this day, while very busy, was flowing along smoothly. Some studio bigwigs were there and they were seeing things work at their best. The hundreds of extras moved through wardrobe and makeup, they were wrangled to position by the extra 2nd ADs drafted in for the purpose, the stars were doing their thing and the scenes were being shot on time.
I had told the 2nd Assistant Directors about the toilet arrangements, and they had passed the information on to the relevant strata. The less egotistical actors were good-naturedly joking about the luxury of having their own facilities and not having to take a dump in the portaloo as they sometimes did while out on location in the bush. Soon though, the time arrived and the man arrived for his wardrobe call. As he was ushered through the set to the bus he was informed of the toilet arrangements by one of the more daring ADs, he brushed them aside and mounted the steps of the bus like someone ascending the stage to collect an Oscar.
He went back to the make up section of the bus, the very rear-most part, and allowed the makeup artist to paint his face, then he went to wardrobe. At this point I was some distance away from the bus so I am imagining the last part, but what I know is that I heard him call my name in a voice loud enough to be heard miles away. All heads turned and I hurried over to the bus. He was standing there with the tissue paper that protected his clothes from makeup overspill sticking up from the collar of his shirt, his face was beetroot red, it was apparent that he wasn’t happy.
The wardrobe and makeup people were behind him barely containing their mirth, as I was about to get blasted. He started by shouting at me, what’s the meaning of this fucking sign? Pointing back into the bus with a jabbing finger. I had been expecting this, because the sign had. in fact, been a joke at his expense, but I hadn’t expected to be screamed at in such an overt way. But such was the extent of his bruised ego, there was no stopping him. My prepared explanation was trotted out, because the bus was so crowded today we wanted to make sure that none of the extras went in and used the toilet because it could slow down the pace that they could be processed, and, as the extractor wasn’t operational it could be difficult for the people working on the bus after an episode. This did not go down well, and his next words are still ringing in my memory many years later, what the fuck is the point of a fucking toilet that you can’t do a fucking shit in? Delivered at maximum volume about a foot from my face, he looked truly demented. I decided it wasn’t a good time to mention that correct syntax would have been, into which one can’t do a shit.
That day I knew I was finished on the show.
Sure enough, the boss of the film vehicle company called me later to say that I wasn’t coming back for the next production run. I found out later that he had almost lost the contract on the show because of that episode, such was the ire of the petty wanker.
Several weeks later, as we were filming the last week of episodes of that production run, the executive producer of the show deigned to appear on set. He had never been around since I had worked there, so when he was pointed out to me I decided to go and ask, no, beg, if he could reinstate me for the next run. I introduced myself and made my pitch, please, oh please, can I come back next time? He looked at me and considered his words carefully then said, you have to understand, you can’t piss off Norm Coburn and expect to keep working on this show. He smiled pityingly and walked away.
So I didn’t get to go back for the next run, but I did go onto bigger and better things on TV and film sets. I worked on some massive films and some much more modest films, but on balance my career in film and telly was as random and uninspiring as the rest of my existence.
Still, those memories, couldn’t do without them.