I had barely travelled before, and India was an incredible experience that saw me working alongside Bollywood Actors to create performances in villages and DVD movies to raise public health awareness of things like diet, pregnancy, HIV, and AIDS. Issues that had been brought up during our research in the field as we took blood samples, and asked women about their health experiences. It was an eye opening experience that forced me to realise my own belief system as a westerner. In order to interview the women in the villages we had to first get the permission of the male elders, and we faced daily challenges of things like infanticide, untouchables, and the caste system. It was also the first time that I came to realise how many strong and amazing women there are in the world, and it definitely shaped the charity that I would later found as part of my fight for children's advocacy. It was my first proper foray into the power of television and film for public health education, and I suppose no surprise that later on in my medical career, I would write a paper focused on the positive health impacts of series like Casualty.
Anyway, I digress. As it turned out, India was to leave its mark on me in a very different way, as my body suddenly had a reaction to my routine rabies travels vaccinations, and I suddenly found myself paralysed and in hospital in Chennai (former Madras) having developed a condition called Guillain-Barre. I can tell you that 18 months of recovery and frustration gives you a lot of time to contemplate the meaning of life! And so it was that I decided to pursue a career in medicine, around the same time as the first fast track medical school courses were introduced to the UK. I quit my job at the hospital in London and took up a post as an Emergency Care Assistant at the hospital where I was born in Reading (where Kate Winslet happened to have been born just a week or two before me!). I needed to get as much hands on care experience as I could to improve my application for such a competitive course, so I worked bank shifts on other wards and in an old people's home, and took night courses in science. But was still lacking experience alongside a GP and that kind of post seemed impossible to come by. And then, I discovered through some out-of-the-box thinking, that a couple of paramedics I'd met in London, also worked at Pinewood Studios at the medical centre there. So I wrote to the film studio and asked if I could do some voluntary work at the medical centre there. I've come to believe that it NEVER does any harm to ask, the worst that anyone can say is no. Never in a million years did I imagine they would agree to let me do work experience with them, but they did!!
That's how I ended up on film productions like James Bond's Casino Royal, and Harry Potter, and discovered that Pinewood had the only permanent underwater film stage in the world, and that in turn led to me becoming an IMCA Diver Medic Technician and going on to work in aviation, space, environmental, and hyperbaric medicine with the Royal Navy and NASA.
It was during one of these days on set with the medical team, that a call came in that Eastenders were looking for someone with some medical experience to play the role of a paramedic and the guys suggested that I might fancy it. I thought they were joking at first since I was more of a dweeb than an actress person. But I did it, and was then invited to join the agency's books as a 'Supporting Artist'. Back in those days, there were only a handful of agents and it was incredibly difficult to get on the books, and most jobs in the film industry were done on word of mouth. You worked on a production, people liked you, and then they asked you to work on their next production.
To be honest, I was terrified of my agent and I had so much imposter syndrome that I was sure I would get found out, but I never left their books. It was a family business and they had all been actors in the 1980s Tenko series and were very 'sweety darling' stereotypical creatives, a whole different world to me coming from an environment of Italian neurologists and brain experts at the hospital. Back in those days you got a call on your mobile phone (I don't think texts were a thing then) and you would be told to get to the studio for 4am tomorrow morning to play role x. There was no saying that you couldn't do it or checking your diary back then. If you didn't do it, then chances were you would never get a job again.
Lucky for me that I was at the studio pretty much all day every day now I'd picked up paid work, and that gave me the added advantage of being called to the agent's office, which just happened to be right next door to Roger Moore's office - so it became a regular occurance that I would meet with the former Mr Bond in the corridor and chat about the weather or what we were having for lunch in the studio canteen. And sometimes we would walk past people like Keira Knightly or Johnny Depp in a corridor too, hair in rollers, or nipping to the loo. Hold open the door and say good morning. Half the time I had no idea who anyone was since I didn't really watch tv or movies. I was far too busy swatting up for med school or studying for my med school exams once I was in. But I loved catching the train home at the end of the day and looking around at folks on the carriage and having a sense of them having no idea what magic had been created at the studio that day, but knowing that they would soon be chatting about the latest movie they had seen or having some sense of happiness because of the work and talents of a whole team of regular people who created beautiful things - the medics, set designers, shuttle bus driver, electrician, carpenter, costume designer, lighting guy, chef, optician, dentist, and of course the actors themselves. It was the same buzz as working in a busy accident and emergency department, or working with the Royal Navy, every person in the team mattered, because if one person failed to do their task, it impacted on everyone else. I still have that same sense of pride as a 'supporting artist' because even though the role is tiny and seems insignificant, it still matters, and it can really make up a scene and the context for the story. Sometimes I might spend a week away filming something, and you might just get a split second of me on screen if you're lucky!
Well, it turned out that once I started working as a 'Supporting Artist', I became eligible and already had the skill set I needed to become a stunt person, and the next logical step was to take part in some of the stunt training sessions at the studios, so that I could get my licence and work as a scuba diver in the underwater stage doing the underwater stunts. And that was when I moved to the Caribbean to begin my work in Public Health Medicine and turned my energies to working with space medicine, but I still kept my hand in with film work whilst I was there, and have done ever since.
Working on Gentleman Jack
Flash forward to summer 2018 and imagine yourself in the Tesco's car park of a market town called Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire. It's a baking hot day, and you are about to leave the cool, fresh air of the mobile home step, to try on layer upon layer of thick and scratchy material and a very tight corset. Welcome to the world of costume fittings! You've also just spent 5 hours on the train to get here for about £25 and forked out £45 for the train. Often when you tell people you are working on a film production, they imagine glamour or that you are a millionaire, but the reality is, it is poorly paid (often lower than the minimum wage by the time you take out your agent's fee, VAT, travel, and purchase of any clothing you might need for the job) and it is very, very tiring and unpredictable. But it's also a lot of fun, you get to hang out with cast and crew on set that you've met on previous productions (many becoming long time friends), and you get to see places in the world that you've never been to before. It's a lot better if you are filming at places like Pinewood or on long series because the pay is generally better, locations are less remote and expensive, and you can become a regular on things like Casualty or Eastenders, and a few of my friends from the old days when I first started, now work full time on Eastenders on their own market stall, or on Casualty as a porter or nurse. As a medical student it was the perfect job for me because I would bring my revision notes to set, and now as an author, I find that it helps to refill that 'creative well' and still gives me time to write and a change from working on my own at home.
Over the years I've come to quite enjoy the costume fittings too, because I'm effectively just a body that someone else is dressing, and I have no idea what they have in store for me. So it's always a nice surprise to see what I look like by the time costume, hair, and make-up have finished with me. It's definitely helped me as a writer, because I like to play a game with myself whilst they are getting me ready, and I try and put myself into the mindset and personality of the person I now look like, and imagine their back story. How old are they, are they friendly, do they have a family, what are their favourite foods, and what is their relationship to the other people on the set? Do they know each other? Often in the process of doing that, and continuing like that whilst we film, I will find myself with a complete story by the end of the shoot. It isn't something planned, it is something that just takes its own path as the director places me next to different people through the day and my character's back story develops and grows. How many authors get the opportunity to do that with their characters! That's probably why I'm starting to get quite a collection of movie set themed stories, all of them sparked by tiny moments of time on set.
Becoming a Murder Mystery Writer
The carpenter taking a piece of MDF and building a set made from wood, that looks realistic on camera, and seeing how all the elements come together to make something that viewers or readers can connect with on an emotional level. It's very hard to see those things when you are on set, it is only when you watch the finished thing that you suddenly get it, and to me that's just how the writing is too. It's words and descriptions and attention to the environment around the characters, and thinking what they are wearing and how that will impact on the decisions they make, that comes together to make a coherent story.
For me, Gentleman Jack was when a lot of these subconscious things, became tangible for the first time, as I sat chatting with some of the electricians and actors out in the reception as we tried to get some fresh air outside of the studio. I've worked with a lot of these folks before, and will do so again, but the story will be different next time, because they will be wearing different clothes and facing different challenges. I love how actors are able to do that, to live and breathe the characters they play, and I can't imagine having to switch between being yourself and then playing a character the next moment. Especially on emotionally charged productions such as Eastenders where they do a lot of method acting.
Gentleman Jack was also special, because I'd spent a year being filmed for a Channel 4 documentary about my ancestry and DNA and love of ice swimming, and so family history was very much on my mind. A lot of my filming is in London, but when it takes place in the north of England and is a period drama, then it has a different significance because I'm often playing roles that my ancestors would have done in real life. It brings me a deeper level of intimacy with my roots, and a pride for how hard they must have worked and the kinds of conditions they lived in. Crawling through a mine in the dark, by candle light, with a corset on, thick material, and through water was hard work in a studio setting, but imagine doing that for real day in and day out. Gentleman Jack in that way is sharing the story of my ancestors in a small way, but also the story of an incredible woman Anne Lister. Her struggles and lack of freedom and how she dealt with them and forged her own path, were the same kinds of struggles that those women I met in India went through, and that many of the children I work with today are going through. That makes me appreciate how important it is that we continue to tell these stories. For that, I think Gentleman Jack will be a little bit extra special in my many years of work as an SA. xx