Tony Bell Diary of a Gossip week Five: Sheffield

How to be Northenr and Influence People

How to be Northenr and Influence People

I know Sheffield was before Newcastle, but I’m running so fast to catch up I’m going backwards (“The clock struck two ere I left and now it strikes one!”)

I thought I should blog about Sheffield, since that’s where I tell casting directors I’m from, even though I’m from Nottingham. If you’re a northern character actor then it’s better to come from Sheffield, which is the North, rather than Nottingham, which is not strictly the North, because it’s the Midlands. Although since “This is England” made Shane Meadows famous, it might be better to come from Nottingham, as all his films are shot there, and most of my schoolmates’ kids are in them, and they’re not even actors, they do paper rounds.

I’m not being professionally honest am I? Maybe that’s why my television career hasn’t kicked off the way my Propeller one has, or maybe it’s just that I’m always doing Propeller. As you know, that’s not the whole truth, because I took two years out to develop my telly career, which was more of a telly “watch” than a telly “be in” experience. I’ll come clean, it was a catastrophe, but I did get to study lots of bona fide TV actors from the comfort of my own flatscreen. I really got into “Mad Men”, which is addictive viewing. Isn’t that silver haired fox, who has heart attacks and sleeps with younger women, great? I’d like to do at least one of those things when I’m his age. And then there’s “The Wire,” which according to trendy directors is a “must see”, and according to me is a “must see with subtitles”. Since when has the Brooklyn accent been so strong? I’ve been there twice with the company, and they all talk like Alastair Cook. Well, the ones who run the “Brooklyn Academy of Music” do. What’s that you’re saying? It’s set in Baltimore not Brooklyn. I knew that, actually. It’s my feeble attempt to crowbar Propeller relevance into an “all about me” blog. Isn’t there a song called “On Baltimore Bar Tat” by the way? I remember singing that in Sheffield when I was growing up really northern.

Dave Newman who plays Luciana, is almost from Nottingham. He’s from Lincoln, which is like being from Austria rather than Germany. He’s worked a lot for Northern Broadsides, and you could say he’s another northern actor, if you wanted, but neither of us want to be pigeon holed thank you very much. Well, I do actually, I haven’t asked Dave. Truth is, I can’t do any other accent, which is why when I was asked to play Doctor Pinch as a Southern American evangelist, I opted for a Southern American evangelist from the north. For this to work we had to adjust the costume to make it clear to the audience I was meant to be from Sheffield, and not just rubbish at accents. So we added a string vest, and then because you couldn’t see it under the shirt, we added a striptease down to said vest, to make it doubly clear I was playing the role as Eric Morecombe, or Vic Reeves, not as Billy Graham. Thus the seminal performance was born, of a Texan evangelist preacher from Sheffield via Nottingham with a string vest and a sparkler up the bum.

And that’s how an actor creates a character. I’m sure Stanislavski would agree, it’s a very rigorous process based on the premise that on no account must an actor’s limitations be found out. Hold on to the mystery, that’s what I say. Actually, during that fated break from Propeller, I was found out, just once. It was the summer of 2008, I remember the day well, it was hot and clammy. A week before, I took a call from my swanky agent in LA, or was it Greek Street?

Agent: “You’re up for the lead in a Ken Loach film, it’s to play a man having a nervous breakdown, obsessed with Eric Cantona.”
Me: “Great”
Agent: “You play football don’t you?”
Me: “Does the Pope suck eggs?”
Agent: “Pardon? Never mind, you know about breakdowns don’t you?”
Me: “I had one last week when you put me up for Paul McCartney in “Lennon.” I look nothing like him, I’m a character actor, not a pretty boy. I should have been up for Ringo.”
Agent: “Let it go Tony or I’ll sack you. Your neuroses are about to end mate, except on camera. You’re a shoe-in for this part”
Me: “Great”
Agent: “Just one thing, and it is very important you remember this. You are from Manchester”
Me: “No, I’m from Nottingham”
Agent: “No, you’re from Manchester”
Me: “No I’m from Nottingham, but I could be from Sheffield?”
Agent: “You could be, but you’re not. You are born and bred in Manchester or he won’t see you. The character is a Mancunian postman, and he wants the genuine article, so just lie, you’re an actor aren’t you? It’s your job.”

So I did. Only I didn’t do my research, I said before I became an actor I worked for a sorting office at Old Trafford, next to the Man City ground. I didn’t really. I said “I’m supposed to come in here and pretend I’m from Manchester, but actually I’m from Nottingham, but I can definitely do a Manchester accent, or at least one shot through with a bit of Sheffield, and I do actually play football, for the “London School of Economics” Veterans, and actually the captain’s daughter goes to Manchester Uni will that do?” Not long after my agent sacked me. Something he threatened in the original phone call, though my mind had been on other things, like my BAFTA speech.

Fate moves in mysterious ways, and had I played the Cantona obsessed depressive, I would not have become a Propeller obsessed depressive, and pleaded with Ed to take me back, and he would not have offered me the small but perfectly formed role of Pinch, and I would not have come “home” to Sheffield, and on opening night had four pork baps, with stuffing and crackling, from four different pork bap shops, and farted all the way down the Lyceum auditorium with a sparkler up my bum. And life would have been far less interesting. Ooh Aah Cantona!

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