Up from the Cape: 15 Feb 2017


Decades ago, in the land where television wasn’t quite the ruthlessly preening and professional creature it wants to be today, it was still possible to make a show for next to nothing. There was one about two children who discovered a portal that took them years into either the past or the future, depending on the point they were at in the overall story-line. It was called “Timeslip”, and it aired when UK production standards for children’s TV were modest in comparison with those of today. Productions were assembled using whatever resources could be scraped from the bottom of whatever barrels were available. It showed, but as I was still at school neither I nor any of my schoolmates cared very much. Timeslip was imaginative, and that was what mattered to us. In addition most of us, if we were honest, had what you might call “leanings” towards a young actress in the show called Cheryl Burfield, but that’s not relevant to this piece.

It was normal for a series in this class to barely be able to afford one proper actor. By “proper actor” I mean it in the elastic sense of someone who could be depended on to have at least something approaching a reliable memory for the script, and not leave aching silences as a consequence of forgetting their lines (a terrifying problem for actors on live TV more than on taped shows). If they could also manage to be “in character” from time to time instead of just regurgitating dialogue in a robotic text-to-speech way, that was a welcome bonus. Producers knew it didn’t pay to depend on it though. The remainder of the cast and crew, scrabbling about on the floor for the few coins that had been scattered for them, varied considerably in what we can call loosely talent.

If such a thing as a talent-meter had been invented, the high end stops would be at “Consummate Professional Artist”. Money was so scarce the needle didn’t swing in that direction often in the days when Timeslip was made. At the other end, just above the shallow water marker, was the tag “Nativity Play Standard”. This was a euphemism for “affordable” (cheap) actors who knew in their hearts that their careers had already peaked at about rooftop height. They were now in a slow wobbly descent towards oblivion, like the flight path of an early and badly designed aircraft and its screaming pilot. These were people (it’s a stretch to say “actors”) whose abrupt staccato actions, spasms of sometimes inappropriate word emphasis unconnected with what they were saying, and otherwise monotone wooden delivery, isolated them as if they were lepers under studio lighting. Like the dispossessed around a fire on a winter’s night, they huddled around the “Nativity Play” tag and warmed their frozen hands against it for as long as the fire lasted.

There was an actor in a Timeslip story called John Barron. He was cast as the director of a scientific research station. I don’t know where his dreams lay when he began his long and determined trudge through an acting career. I’m reasonably sure he didn’t imagine dressing up in a baco-foil and plastic “worlds of tomorrow” costume while standing like a fence post driven into the ground, talking like a bolt upright telegram from Foghorn Leghorn. Tragically, this was one of the destinations along his way in the role assigned to him in Timeslip. It lasted for six rib-aching episodes. It’s hard to judge how proud he was of this performance. If he had anything that passed for consciousness or pride, he must have just banked the money and moved on. I know I would have. Just as an aside, why does budget TV science fiction always think that people who work in a scientific establishment “in the future” have to dress like guests at a fancy dress party? It’s like expecting someone who works at Porton Down to be issued with the costume Frank Gorshin used as the Riddler in the 1960s “Batman” series. How many jobs demand that  before you can start work for the day you have to put on a green spandex suit with question marks all over it? The only people I can think of who really have to carry that sort of burden (or something akin to it) are hospital workers. So many of them have to wear such genuinely humiliating clothes I wonder sometimes if a career in cheap science fiction isn’t a viable and attractive option for NHS workers.

Even as an adolescent I used to sit and watch John Barron’s performances in Timeslip with my mouth open, often wheezing like a deflating tyre or quivering like a paint-mixer (me, not him – though he had his moments too). In addition to a ridiculous and humiliating costume, they gave him a brushed-back hairstyle that made his head look like a Pez dispenser. He was supposed to have an American accent, but it was the type of American accent you only ever get when the actor has never tried to do one before and didn’t have time to experiment. Barron’s American accent had a pin-ball randomness to its trajectories as it bounced from “Dixie”, to British, and then on to W C Fields. Some of my classmates at school used to do impressions of him. His character was always honking on about being “on brain-link with the computer”. That became a catch-phrase with us for a while. It was used to describe anyone who had a telegraph pole posture and a faraway look in their eyes. Upon occasion it also meant anyone in class who said or did anything abnormally stupid. “Look at him” someone would say while watching a boy struggling and failing repeatedly to pick up a coin from the ground “He’s been on brain-link with the computer again.” When they’re on-form and not making idiot noises by squashing air out from a cupped hand under the arm-pit, children can have quite a sophisticated sense of humour sometimes.