Follow one crying eye on

Arise Dot Cotton!

It is 4.30am. Midsummer morn. Already light, although the sun is yet to rise. I silence my alarm, grab the waiting pile of clothes and head downstairs for coffee, with a remarkably spirited step for this time o’clock.


Is the aim to reach Stonehenge before the dawn for an uplifting sing? Or an alternative pagan ritual on a more local common?

Well, no. I am bound for that alternative well-known hippy-land – Shoreditch – instead. 

Maybe the godforsaken wedge-shaped carpark for which I have a postcode, a road name, some confusing instructions and an apparently definitive ‘three words’ (What?) will yield some uplifting solstice magic? I can but dream, but if I sit still for too long I will indeed drift back to dreamland all too readily, so I abandon my jumbled ponderings in favour of getting a move on, brushing my teeth, shoving many pre-gathered bits and pieces into my trusty Mickey-Mouse shoulder bag, and leaving the house, gently closing the door behind me.

I find myself at my local railway station on a clear-blue-sky Wednesday morning waiting for the 05.50 train into London. I have a reasonably clear plan for the onward journey to Shoreditch and am determined to be phased neither by the unaccustomed hour nor the shortness of train. I fear that my old person’s freebie travel pass doesn’t work until much much much much later in the day, and to avoid the ignominy of refusal at the first hurdle, I reluctantly deploy an actual payment card. I realise that I no longer know the cost of this familiar journey, but my pride (and relief) at having successfully made it this far despite my ferociously uncooperative body-clock, overcomes any financial qualms and I veritably spring onto the carriage and bag a window seat.

I am already too hot. I am wearing jeans and winter walking shoes and beginning to regret the vest under my T-shirt. Never mind – in no time at all, I am navigating the subterranean walkways at Waterloo, down to what I have always known as the Drain (I don’t know if today’s commuters still refer to the Waterloo and City Line as the Drain but, if not, I don’t really care – I know what I mean, and it’s not a Bazalgette sewer) and thence to Bank, then onward to Liverpool Street Station where I emerge into full-on morning sun.

Shortly after, I find myself bravely striding down a graffiti-strewn alleyway, the crunch of broken glass at my feet adding to the atmosphere of bohemian adventure. Just as my nerves are beginning to fail me slightly, I catch a waft of fried bacon and, sure enough, there is my destination: neither hipster café nor druid encampment, but a huddle of assorted trailers and gazebos stuffed into the promised car-park and a slightly overheated, but also somehow chilled, Assistant Director with a clip-board to greet me. Yes, I am once again scratching my Supporting Artist (SA) itch; this time the fourth series of a successful Apple-TV series which I have never seen (although I have read all the books). I am not allowed to say what the production is or give away too many details – it says this in the contract (which at this point in the proceedings I had not seen or signed, but they are always the same on this).

I am whisked to the make-up trailer where my hair is plaited and the usual less-is-more approach is taken to my face. In the past, I have been left without make-up at all, although this time I’m not sure whether to be proud or a little bit sad when they choose to accentuate my bad points rather than disguise them. I am reprimanded mildly when I tell them the brief from my fitting last week was just to make me look “like me… only worse”. As they rapidly apply dark browns and blacks, I realise this is teaching me which bits I need to hide if I want to look presentable or at least a bit less hag-like. The finishing touch is a generous spray of oil on my hair to make it look greasy. Hallelujah.

I am ushered into a small trailer to change into my costume, part of which I am already wearing (those jeans and walking shoes), including a large roll-neck sweater and a padded jacket. It is, I think, an unwritten rule that SAs work exclusively in the season opposite to the one being depicted on camera. Thus, today’s action takes place in a chilly on-screen January, whilst we pretend not to notice the reality of 30-degree June heat. SAs are known to compete with each other over how many thermal layers they can secretly conceal beneath summery outfits when shooting summer fetes in the depths of winter (‘I’ve got three vests and two pairs of tights on and cardboard liners in my shoes’; ‘Well, I’ve got a couple of lithium-battery-powered hand warmers in my bra*.’ etc), but other than risking the ‘commando’ option, there is less one can do this way round (‘I’ve got no knickers on’; ‘Me Too!’ might of course be misinterpreted). [*Don’t try this.]

Next is breakfast, at which I successfully fail to dribble or smear anything onto my costume, whilst hearing from a fellow SA how he had attempted Graffiti Alley, but thought better of it when spotting some drug-dealing up ahead and taken a much longer route instead. Hmm. I’d obviously been lucky. Shudder.

We are then herded into a mini-bus for transportation to the ‘set’, a City of London council estate next to the Barbican. Most of my fellow SAs are not much more than a quarter of my age and only a couple are of my own ethnic origin. Even at this time of day, they are a lively bunch, and I confess to being relieved when the youngsters are taken off en masse to film a scene for which the remaining five ‘adults’ are not required. Relief increases on realising that our filming base for the day is a pub, with a modicum of cooling from an old-fashioned ceiling fan and proper facilities to boot.

Considerable time passes. We exchange a few stories, mostly about layers of clothing on winter shoots of course, before lapsing into phone-surfing or – in my case, hurrah – reading our books. The youngsters have not returned, so we have peace until the caterers arrive from their earlier car-park duties and begin to set up lunch in the middle of the pub (which is closed to the public). We are finally escorted outside and along a walkway towards the Action. A chap of similar age to me is walking towards me – a very familiar face and I automatically smile hello, which he returns as we pass by each other. Oh FFS I’ve done it again! He’s not an acquaintance, but an actor (yes you daft woman, there will be actors here!) and, weirdly, one I watched storm offstage at the National Theatre just two evenings ago (and then stride back in and make a very funny unscripted comment as it became clear the revolving stage had broken and the play could not continue with all the techies digging it up – it’s ok, I’m rebooked for July). Of course, this prompts me to tell everyone around me the story of the aborted play – to no-one’s interest whatsoever. 

It turns out the adults are not needed, but we’re held nearby just in case they want some human scene-dressing (they don’t) and thus are able to watch from afar as the ‘talent’ (the friendly actor) works with the youngsters and the scene is shot from different angles, some of which require us to crouch down behind a parapet so we cannot be seen. I love all this. It is so completely unglamorous, but fascinating. I would, naturally, love it a whole lot less if we were standing, or crouching, in the sun rather than the shade, or if it was pouring with rain, but it’s great today. 

The scene is wrapped and we return to the pub.  Lunch smells good. They’ve already taken our orders. However, before we can get our clammy mitts on the food, three of us ladies are asked to line up for a photograph. This happens regularly throughout these shoots and we dutifully oblige. This time it seems that another SA with a later call-time has failed to turn up. They called her when she failed to show and she told them she was just 10 minutes away, but still never arrived.  She was booked to play ‘lady working in launderette’. They need to replace her urgently. And, from the photo just taken, the team have decided I’m the woman for the job.

I am immediately dispatched by minibus (alone, this is surely star treatment now) back to Crowd Base in the car park, wondering nervily whether I may be replacing the latest Graffiti Alley stab victim, if only someone cared to look, and fretting only slightly that I am missing my lunch. I should not have worried. There are no subsequent reports of Shoreditch murders, and – most important – my lunch is waiting for me in its recycled cardboard box in my very own trailer! OK, I exaggerate, but I am indeed installed alone in an air-conditioned trailer, because no-one else is around and it is the only place with a chair.

My make-up is deemed already perfect (‘sigh’), and I swap into the other SA’s clothes, which are a size too big for me, but that simply renders them even less flattering, which is probably a good thing. Who wears clothes that always fit properly anyway? (Oh, do you? Oops, must just be me then.) Miraculously the strangely-hued trainers she was supposed to wear are a perfect fit, and a little less warm than my own walking shoes, so that’s a bonus.

Critically, I have a tabard. A tabard!!! Victoria Wood in Dinnerladies springs to mind. But I think those were flowery and this one is plain. The late great Dot Cotton in Eastenders? Of course. (In fact, subsequent research shows that Dot wore a sleeved apron or coverall, so my excitement and icon-channeling are largely misplaced, but once I mention to the Assistant Director that I am now Dot Cotton, he laughingly confirms I very much look the part (harsh, but I’m sure he means well) and proceeds to reference her throughout the scene.)

I instantly take to my tabard. It has capacious pockets in which to hide my inactivated phone and the Fitbit they won’t let me wear even under long sleeves because it looks too ‘nice’ (Too nice? That’s a first for me – haha). I practice shoving my hands into the pockets and slouching a bit more than usual. Oh, what fun.

Back across London in the minibus, whose driver becomes confused and drops us a good 15-minute walk away from the estate – ‘us’ being me (Dot Cotton), one of the many Assistant Directors, and an unidentified other person who exchanges not a word with me, so is perhaps a VIP of some sort (but I don’t think so, just a mardy bu**er who relies on Dot and the AD to navigate on our phones).

Lurking outside the launderette, which is a real launderette on the estate and has been closed for the day for the filming, I realise that I am to be playing background to the show’s main character. No pressure then! I am ushered inside and installed behind the counter, where my new-found chum AD suggests a few little actions ‘Dot’ can do when the camera is rolling. He shows me on a film monitor, the small part of the shot that I will occupy (probably but not necessarily out of focus, I reckon) which is fascinating and not at all nerve-wracking. ‘I’ve got this’, as someone in the biz might say.

After several rehearsals and a couple of takes, there is a short break which leaves me in the launderette alone with the main ‘talent’. SAs are not allowed to talk to the ‘talent’ unless spoken to first, and no words were exchanged, although a raised eyebrow and small shrug apiece seemed pleasantry enough. I could not help but feel a bizarre otherness though. This guy has an Oscar. An actual Academy Award. And he’s sitting here in ‘my’ not-so-beautiful launderette, with his scruffy overcoat and scarf and his skanky locks treated with the same spray-in grease as I am sporting (or perhaps a more expensive and industrial strength version as he surely/hopefully looks skankier than me) waiting to make a pretend phone-call and a rapid exit.

Once he has made this hasty exit for the umpteenth and final time, I am left completely alone with the eternally turning driers – which have been fed endlessly by yet another AD from a stash of one-pound coins hidden under the (my) counter – until even they run out of steam. I watch proprietorially through the glass as my fellow SAs walk past several times in character filming the outside scene. It is only when an elderly couple come in with a large service wash that I am brought back to earth. Sadly, before I can take their money, the actual owner arrives and points out that he is closed (and earning far more from Apple than he would get in a week from the punters – he doesn’t say this, of course, but it is surely true) and chases them grumpily away.

A quick change back into my first set of clothes, and we are taken further up the street and I find myself walking away from camera and towards the Academy-awarded scruff as he continues a phone conversation with a pretend colleague. I excel myself here, managing quite magnificently to set off on cue (mostly) and not to smirk, poke out my tongue or full-on collide with him at all. We probably do this seven or eight times. It is then a wrap – and we are bundled into the minibus back to base. We don’t see the ‘talent’ again; he has perhaps retired to the pub, or hopped in a passing limo. We change and are dispatched with as much haste as the crew can instil in us because we are already well into overtime time and every fifteen minutes costs them more.

I risk the alley and am relieved to see no evidence of drugs or dead bodies, although the broken glass remains, and there is a chap on an upturned box adding to the copious graffiti. Presumably paid by the council in this hip-neighbourhood– who knows?

Commuters are perhaps surprised to see Dot Cotton as she scuttles through Old Spitalfields Market and along Threadneedle Street to Bank, even though she thinks she is incognito having left her tabard behind. And then this old lady leaves The Old Lady behind as she descends to the Drain to meet her Waterloo, where Mrs J ascends to the concourse to board her (now free!) train home.

Thus, another day of ridiculous work comes to an end.

I wonder who I’ll be next time?





Follow one crying eye on