You never know what to say to actors. If you ask them whether they’re working, you could be stepping on a very severe sore toe. But if you don’t, you could be ignoring their big break. I usually just say ‘What’s new?’
That’s what I said when I met Sid the other day. He is an actor. He occasionally works. But he is much more often in the pub, which is where I met him the other day.
‘Sid!’ I said. ‘Long time no see. How are things with you, darling? What’s new?’
He frowned. I had forgotten that Sid is not one of your actual effusive theatre people.
‘I’ll rephrase that.’ I said. ‘Tell me, Sid, how’s the world treating you?’
He kept frowning. I had also forgotten that he hates clichés. What did he like, then? I remembered. Pretentious foreign phrases, that’s what he likes.
‘Que pasa, hombre?’ I said.
His brow cleared. ’Pasa nada,’ he said. ‘Well, that’s not strictly true. I’m working. Not only that, but I am in the middle of a long run at the moment.’
‘Brilliant!’ I said, highly relieved, more for my sake than his. ‘Muy bueno! Where’s the job?’
‘Down the M4.’
Could be Bath. Good. Could be the last weeks of the panto at the Bristol Hippodrome. Not so good. Could be strolling players at the Glastonbury Festival. Could be worse.
‘Whereabouts down the M4?’
‘You jest,’ I said, in that mock-heavy tone resorted to by British conversationalists when they can’t actually think of a joke.
‘I kid you not,’ he said. ‘I’ve been working on the M4 for six months. As an actor.’
Intrigued, I bought Sid a couple of rounds of drinks and heard one of the most amazing stories I have heard in years.
The thing is, the Department of Transport have developed a penchant for public relations recently,’ said Sid. ‘Well they had to, really. So many apparently healthy lanes have been coned off, and so much muttering was heard from the public, that they had to offer a bit of window dressing. That’s why they started posting notices with explanations, like ‘Road Mending to Replace Worn Out Surface or ‘Road Widening in Progress.’
‘I see,’ I said, not seeing.
‘But there was still a large measure of discontent, caused mainly by people who used the motorway and could see with their very own eyes that when the motorway was reduced to two lanes, or even one, the road works area often stood silent and inactive. There is nothing much more galling than crawling past a motorway works area in some hot and sweaty jam and being able to see for yourself that absolutely nothing is being done by engineers, motorway builders or anyone.’
‘Right. So what do you think they did?’
I thought for a moment.
‘Hired some more workers?’
‘Nah,’ scoffed Sid. ‘You don’t know the DoT. No, what they did was hire some actors. Get us in to look like workers. An actor in a yellow hard hat looks very like a builder in a yellow hard hat, and cost half the money. Half the motorway works areas you pass are populated entirely by actors.’
‘I jest you not,’ said Sid, coining a new cliché by accident. ‘Have you not noticed that quite often these work areas seem to be swarming with workers, yet not a single bit of machinery is actually being used?’
Now that he came to mention it, he was absolutely right. I had noticed this.
‘We don’t always work on the same motorway, ‘ said Sid. "We get moved around a lot. I’m up the A1(M) next week. Of course, wherever you go it’s basically the same production and the same plot and everything, if you can call it a plot, but at least you get to change parts. Next week I am playing the part of a bullying overseer, with clipboard. It’s a bit of a boring character part. But it’s better than my last role, which was the part of the man fixing the generator for the night-time lighting. God, that was boring. And they gave me these awful trousers, which the British workmen wear and which don’t quite cover your bottom but keep sliding down. I told them, if I had known the part involved nudity…! They said they thought it was justified on dramatic grounds… Incidentally, this is all totally hush hush…’
I wasn’t sure whether to believe Sid or not. On the while, I thought not. But yesterday, when crawling past one of those motorway works areas I had a closer look. The workmen all looked quite authentic to me. And then my wife shook me rigid by saying: ‘How strange. Did you see what was written on the front door of that white Portakabin?’
‘It said: “Green Room”.’
Motorway Madness 1998