This potato is armed and dangerous

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Up from The Cape: 1 March 2019

Every generation has its heroes. One of my parents was a Nelson Eddy worshipper. For anyone unfamiliar with film history during the first half of the 20th century, Nelson Eddy was an amiable plank of wood with an impressive classical operatic singing voice. Based on the Sherlock Holmes principle that when you’ve eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth, it’s probable that Nelson Eddy didn’t get his film roles for the scope and depth of his acting. The ability to stand completely rigid while delivering his lines like an “I Speak Your Weight” machine, can hardly have been a draw for most film producers. The power and depth of his singing voice had to be the answer.

This phenomena of casting someone in a starring role for reasons other than acting talent, at least on the jagged scale that actors attempt to climb, has lingered. It’s still with us today. Steven Seagal throws a long shadow in that respect. Back in the 1990s when I first became aware of him in films, it was through an Aikido club I belonged to. Seagal had gone to Japan as a youth and learned Aikido in the hard traditional Japanese way. He emerged from that process sufficiently accomplished to be the first westerner to run an Aikido dojo in Japan. Through fate or good fortune, those accomplishments came to the attention of a casting director for a martial arts thriller, and Seagal hopped ably into the mahogany shoes once worn by heavyweight marionettes such as Nelson Eddy and Zeppo Marx.

What’s endearing about Seagal as the decades have fallen from the calendar is not just his persistence and longevity in films. As he became considerably richer along the way (and it has to be said, as the ageing process that respects none of us gained ground on him), he began to take on the aspect of an inflatable actor, much like the legend that is William Shatner. It was especially unfortunate for close-cropped publicity images where he scowls from behind a gun held up at eye-level. Good living has caught up sufficiently for him to look like an armed, dangerous, and furious potato in those pictures.

I suppose one of the reasons I have a warm place in my heart for Seagal, Aikido aside, is that he’s the personification of the “hope for us all” principle in films. The tottering robotic path he’s cut through the jungle of a career in films is something the rest of us could follow on our own wooden, stilt-like legs. My only abortive lunge in that direction is preserved like a failed Frankenstein experiment in a music video made in 2010. I’d been covering the video as a photographer, and was called upon randomly to fill in a personnel gap on the shoot. For seven aching seconds it was necessary for me to dig deep, stretch my resources to the limit, and pretend to be “an angry man on the phone”. Given that in 2010 I was angry for pretty much most of the time (for reasons I won’t burden anyone with), that piece of work was just an exercise in releasing what was festering inside my head. Watching it become manifest isn’t uplifting. I don’t watch the clip very often because on the occasions I do I find myself aghast, saying aloud “did I really look like that for most of 2010?” It’s not a happy thought. It’s certainly not a question I ask whenever anyone that knew me at the time is present.

It’s likely that Seagal’s acting career and mine diverged because he had something to offer other than acting. All I had was the ability to occupy a physical space while looking very cross about it. Back in the creaky days of cheap British television, satisfying the checklist of two arms, two legs, and one head was more or less all that was required to be in with a chance on the likes of a 60s or 70s episode of Dr Who. On those terms I’d have probably found an agent willing to take a punt. All of that’s changed. There’s as much chance of me becoming an actor now as there is of me making it as a gigolo. Trust me, I’ve looked in the mirror recently.

I suppose the other more serious problem I’d have with acting as a career option is the humiliation I’d have to go through if I were to take formal training as an actor. I’ve watched too many documentaries with grown men scrabbling about on the floor because their acting class assignment was to pretend to be leaves. I have, for good or ill, an innate sense of dignity (also known as “common sense”). It won’t allow me to be fashionable, use social media, or do Karaoke. It won’t allow me to pretend to be leaves either. The other significant hurdle is that today it’s almost impossible to become a British television actor without having a regional accent. This was a long time coming in reaction to the dreary grey days when all male RADA graduates sounded like jolly chaps from Eaton. It was no different for the girls either. They all sounded like the Queen. What’s happened is that with predictable knee-jerk judgementalism, today’s generation has just substituted it’s prejudices for the old prejudices on the grounds that it’s “justice.” If it is justice, then it’s the sort I associate with Judge Dredd, albeit a Judge Dredd who used to work down the pit.

If you’re going to risk having heroes, confine them to people who’ve done something other than acting. That goes double for having a profession. The practised ability to pretend, abruptly, to be a pile of leaves may seem funny after a few hours in the pub, but it won’t be so funny if you’ve got a looming deadline and a shouty client or manager on the phone about it.

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