No, I’m afraid this first image is not from the set, any photos are strictly prohibited. But indeed, I happened to be in a scene where I was being transported by a pull-rickshaw, vintage cars alongside us… think war time, in Singapore.
And on set, I wasn’t wearing light, cooling linens, but stifling thick wool. A suit in fact, with a label that read ‘BBC Birmingham.’
So… here’s how it all happened.
Last weekend, a dear friend happened to be in town. Along with two of her friends, one of whom lives locally, we had a lovely afternoon – lunch and a swim at one of the beach resorts.
A few days later, I meet my new friend for coffee and happen to mention the movie sets that I’ve noticed being set up not too far from my abode in Little India. They progressed daily – posters hung, street and shop signs changed, a veritable ‘sea’ of rattan placed for street scenes, and vintage cars suddenly graced the streets.
“Ah,” says Pam, “there was a call this morning for more extras on set. For tonight, why don’t you give it a try?”
I make the call at 4 pm. The contact asks me to send a few photos. “Yes, you can come over,” he replies and on a whim, I decide it’s what I’m doing for the night. And I literally mean for the night… from 5pm to 5am.
Why not, thinks moi, if nothing else, it’s an experience…
Indeed, it was all of that, but here’s just a little of it!
The setting for ‘check-in, wardrobe, hair and makeup’ is a small university close by. At least fifty people have already arrived as I give my name. My contact proves to be efficient, as it is already on the ‘list’ and I’m official.
We are ages from 8 to 80 (an estimate) and a multitude of nationalities. There are locals, backpackers earning some extra travel money and ‘local expats’ who live here permanently. It seems many commit to every series or movie that comes along. Penang is a popular destination for period pieces.
First, I’m sent to wardrobe. A quick, efficient measure by a young lady who then disappears amongst the racks and racks of clothing. There is everything from mens suits, to porter and rickshaw-puller outfits, to flowery frocks (please not one of those!) to courtesan dresses. They are gorgeous, but no unfortunately, those scenes are not for this evening, I muse ruefully.
The wardrobe dresser re-emerges and presents me with an impeccably tailored grey woollen suit and a pretty silky blouse. I like it and it all fits like a glove. Though to be fair, by 3 am, I’ve bust a seam and wardrobe dutifully comes to my rescue.
Still, so far so good and though the shoes are also tight-fitting (blisters still healing now) they too are something I would actually wear.
Then I’m given a hat (on left) and I’m not as thrilled, and once hair and makeup is complete, I’m transformed into someone I don’t really recognise. I know, I know, that is indeed the point!
Two hours later, with everyone in ‘character’ we are ferried to the set for tonight’s filming. It isn’t much further than a block away from my apartment-for-the month on one of George Town’s main Lebuhs. Now, the road is blocked off, massive lights dangle from cranes, more equipment than you can imagine is ready to go, and vintage cars and pull-rickshaws are in place. A ‘fog machine’ is creating the atmosphere of bombings.
It is a surreal, evocative atmosphere and the first scene is already rolling when our group arrives. The rest of us sit, and sit, and wait some more. Finally, a new scene is setup and we take our positions in the stifling heat inside a building. My woollen suit is now like a suit of armour and already humidity is playing havoc with my coiffed, amply sprayed hair.
Suddenly, it’s time for a break and we all trundle back to the ‘waiting-seating area’. We wait again, and some more, then thankfully, we’re summoned for a scene.
It’s exciting, then less so, then tedious, but clearly the director is picking up where improvements can be made and we re-take, re-take, re-take. I started to count then lost track. Predictably, the main character has a PA, who has a miniature fan to cool him, then spruce-up his makeup after each take. The rest of us mere-mortal-extra-types suffer it out and my woollen jacket now only gets donned just before I hear… rolling, sound-speed, background, action!! An hour or so later, the scene is ‘shot’, one in which I just might have a fleeting second with the main character… that is of course, if it doesn’t end up on the chopping block.
It’s now 1 am, catering arrives, time to eat and then a delay… the daily massive thunderstorm pays us a visit. At about 3 am shooting resumes, but the initial excitement is waning. Yawns are aplenty, but yay, I’m called to do an outdoor street scene.
Yes, this is where the pull-rickshaw comes in and then the bust seam on my skirt. There’s much ‘to and fro’ as the vintage cars and rickshaws are positioned back into place after each take. By this point, I admit, my appreciation for the endless number of crew, the resources and props, the equipment, the extras and the sheer time and attention to detail it takes to capture just a few seconds on screen is now officially, dare I say… mind-boggling and impressive.
At 4:30 am, we get the call ‘to wrap’. As we journey back to Homebase and visions of my bed dance in my head, some of the ‘expat locals’ fondly recall the filming of Indian Summers. My ears perk up as it’s one of my favourite series and I’ve visited a few of the sets, Penang Hill and Suffolk House.
“Oh, it was glorious,” says a seasoned extra. “There I was on set with Julie Walters, for days. It was sheer magic!”
“Hmm, “says a young backpacker from Ireland, “glad I’ve done this, but checked that box. Never again.” There’s some consent to this, but mostly we’re all too tired for discourse of any kind and I wonder how the crew does this, night after night.
Back at Homebase, there’s a dash to ‘un-character’. Yet as I return my vintage BBC suit, I feel just a wee bit nostalgic and wonder who might have worn it before me. Admittedly, I would have loved to have kept the silk shirt. Make-up and hair is at the ready to un-bobby-pin our hats and comb out the hairspray. And with that, we say our farewells, all eager to get home to bed before the sun comes up.
Another experience for the notebook, but would I do it again? I would most certainly consider it, especially if I was chosen to don one of the courtesan dresses… I think I just might be free!