Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Television

Working on a television series is a very different job to making a film. It requires another kind of discipline, one that keeps you working at your best, long after the initial excitement of playing a character has left. You need stamina to work the long hours on a film, but although the day may be a little shorter on a long-running television show, many of the regular cast will be working all year round. The average working week will be over 60 hours long, with line learning and commuting on top. I know, who ever cried over the plight of the working actor? Still, it's a long haul and the actors who do it are often grey with fatigue beneath their face paint.
One of the benefits of playing a regular character is the familiarity with the role. Most actors get quickly acquainted with the characters they play, whether in the theatre or in a film or TV show, you develop ways of getting to know them. Some actors write out histories, some assume the personality of their part and stay 'in character' for the whole job. But on stage and in film, the character is a collaboration. The playwright's words are sacrosanct in the theatre, not a syllable can be changed without the author's permission and the actor's job is to work with the director to bring the story to life. 
On film, famously, writers can be treated very badly, and the script is a little more malleable. However, the character is still a collaboration between the writer, director and actor. Other departments are also influential, the costume, make-up and set designers all make decisions about the characters in a film. Most importantly, once the film is finished, the director and editor get together and make a completely new person out of the one you pieced together over the months of shooting. At this point, the music may be making more performance decisions than you did.
Of course, all these things happen on television shows too. But something else comes into the mix. After a while in a role, the actor starts to know the character better than anyone else ever could. They spend all their working life with them and they have opinions on every choice the character makes. Meanwhile, directors, writers, even series creators, can come and go. Writing teams have a chance to react to what they see on the screen. One character responds unexpectedly to a scene. The writers might want to explore why. A couple of other characters are exciting when they are on screen together, the writers send them out on a date and see what happens. As an actor, this can be both a blessing and a curse. One week you may be celebrating your challenging new storylines, another might find you indulging your paranoia as you search in vain for any non-expositional dialogue.
For the last month I have been visiting the wards on 'Holby City' but the longest time I have spent with a character was on 'Heartbeat'. For two years, I charged about the North Yorkshire moors in my 1960's Citroen Safari, happily dispensing medicine to the denizens of Aidensfield. I learned a lot about the stamina needed to keep up with the schedule and quite a bit about tenant farming in modern Britain. Now there is a tough job. 

20 comments:

  1. Out of all the parts you've played do you have a favorite? Or one most like yourself?

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  2. From all these years as an actress, is there any character you've played which you feel you were totally identified with?
    What do you enjoy more: acting on a film, on a television series or in a theatre?
    Niki

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  3. BTW... Happy Valentine's Day! :-)

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  4. When you agree to play a character in a TV series, how much would you “normally” (if such a thing exists!) know beforehand about your character and the plot? I mean, do you know the script for a number of episodes before you sign, are you briefed about your character in general, or would you hardly know anything at all?

    I assume the writers come up with new ideas along the way. For such a long running series as Heartbeat, they’ll have to write it into the series when something happens in connection with the actors, e.g. when Bill Maynard got ill, Tricia Penrose had a baby, or when an actor wants to leave.

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  5. Hey there Miss Sophie, I'd love to a Q&A Interview and a photo signing if it interests you sometime. Enjoyed the blog too...regards from downunda....David

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  6. Ah, well favourite characters as in, ones I'd like to go holiday with? Or the most fun to play? They are rarely the same. Sticking with the television theme, I really enjoyed a character called Eden in 'A Dark-Adapted Eye' from Barbara Vine's novel. She was damaged and difficult and mysterious. A lot of taking part in a show is about the whole experience though, and that was a great summer with a lovely group of people.
    And what about you, Mel? Do you have a favourite role that you play?

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  7. Hi Niki, I think you always relate to the character you're playing at the time because you feel like you understand them so well. Later, it becomes easier to be objective.
    Oh, and I love the whole lot!

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  8. There's usually a thorough character breakdown already written for you when you first join a show, Paul. In it, you have the background and future plans for the character, which might cover about 6 months. Then, things change, as you say, according to circumstances, but also with the writers responding to what they see on screen, what's working and what's not. You get a script a week or so before shooting on an hour show, then spend 2/3 weeks shooting it and it goes out 3-6 months later. It is always exciting to read what you are going to be up to when the new scripts arrive. Until the day comes when you're reading about your emigration/incarceration/funeral.

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  9. Thanks, David, good to see you here. Next time I'm on the other side of the world, I'll let you know!

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  10. "...Until the day comes when you're reading about your emigration/incarceration/funeral...."

    I had an uncanny feeling from the very first episode you played the new doctor in Heartbeat. I mean, surely Aidensfield must have the highest mortality rate in the world for doctors! :-)

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  11. Yes, I think for the first week of filming all anyone asked me was, 'How are you going to die?' But I went out with a bang.

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  12. I have to agree with you. Eden was cold, classy and painfully gorgeous. I'm sure she made a very interesting character to play.
    You pulled it off well.

    Since I'm not an actor I can't say that I have a fav. role. If I was I'd want to do a movie with Catherine Deneuve. I don't think I'd get far though. If she spoke to me I'd probably die on the spot. Haha, lack of oxygen due to forgetting to breathe.

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  13. ...TELLY
    SUNDAYS


    An ITV gentleman confirmed the currently in production series of Heartbeat will be the last; production offices close soon after. And 60s bobbies go off-duty, forever

    Yet, Telly Sundays when Sophie Ward appeared on Heartbeat, the show attracted over 10 million regular viewers. Seriously

    Alas, when I logically concluded that it was the departure of Sophie Ward, taking her 5 million loyal fans with her - hence the current slump in viewing figures to less than 4 million - the gentleman laughed out loud. Thinking I must be joking. Rude, impertinent, disrespectful Boy

    But it does figure, work it out

    After all, the lads watch the BBCs dull Telly Sunday Antiques Roadshow, not for old buffers getting their family heirlooms priced up to flog for cash, but to ogle the fragrant Fiona Bruce who now presents the show

    Hence, the extra few million male viewers since Ms Bruce took over. That simple

    And the same with Heartbeat. We all switched on to view Sophie Ward, face of the 1980s, beautiful, elegant, cultured, surely?

    Other Sophie Ward sightings? Years ago, whilst you were working at the Chichester Theatre, you visited Portsmouth's iron-clad HMS Warrior. A charity tie-in to help promote Breast Cancer Awareness week. But I was too shy to say hello Sophie Ward, regrettably, then

    I wondered, your Heartbeat character, Dr Helen Trent, might now be free to practise her healing medical touch beyond Aidensfield village in the North Yorkshire moors. For example, ideally, in Portsmouth, Hampshire

    So, I'd best keep a sharp lookout for her distinctive 1960s Citroen Safari, parked in some driveway nearby

    Warmly, from Trevor Malcolm, with my compliments

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  14. Even though the post is about television, it was a sentence about the playwright's words being sacrosanct which caught my eye. I understand why the lines in a play are not up for discussion, but will it make a difference if you perform a play originally written in English, or a play of foreign origin, e.g. by Chekhov, Schiller or Ibsen, which has been translated into English? (Even if there may be a discussion, I suppose it would be for linguistic reasons, and not because an actor really knew her character well, as you described in connection with the tv dialogue). Certain passages – especially puns or culture specific references - may make little sense in the target language if they are translated directly, so the translator often seems caught in a dilemma between authenticity / being true to the original words of the playwright on the one hand, and creating an alternative dialogue with the same effect and which somehow makes more sense, on the other hand. But then can the text still be considered as ‘canon?’

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  15. Hi Emenel,
    That is a very interesting point about translations. My experience with working on a translation was in 'Three Sisters'. In this case, and I believe in many others, the translator was a well-known playwright himself, Brian Friel. The translator will have already made their own interpretation and their choices are respected by the company which often fits in with a sensibility rather than a literal translation. This may be about a 'new take' on a classic play. I expect the revised text is then valued on its own merits, it may fade with the times or become a classic itself.

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  16. Yes, I think plays are mostly translated by other playwrights or writers (i.e. not translators), so it makes sense to look upon a translation of a play as an independent work.

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    Unlike in a lot of feature films, where main characters often go though some kind of development throughout the film and maybe end up as a slightly changed person, I think most characters in a long running tv series don’t really change much (I know, I generalize…!) Somehow, there is almost something reassuring about that. For someone like me, who only watches a show once in a while, it’s easy to pick up where I left!

    I liked Heartbeat. I was a child in the 1960s and really enjoyed the whole atmosphere of this tv show: the music, the cars, the clothes, the interior design. Everything was pure nostalgia for me. I also liked the fact that the women in Heartbeat could have any job: they were lawyers, doctors, chief constables, car mechanics, etc. The character you played was extremely likable. But I remember Helen as being so incredibly controlled, empathic and nice all the time that I secretly hoped she would put her foot down now and then, which rarely happened ;o)

    I heard Nicholas Rhea explain that Heartbeat was a drama series and not a drama serial. I am not sure I understand the difference between these two terms.

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  17. About that last comment you posted on Television
    4 March 2009

    You'd heard Nicholas Rhea explain that Heartbeat was a drama series and not a drama serial

    But you weren't sure you'd understood the difference between these two terms, right?

    (Well, no use looking at me like that, Sophie Ward; I dunno what the difference is, either. That's unless I read further on)

    First stop, the ever-resourceful Lesley Pollinger, managing director of the long-established author agency. Grand-daughter of the inspired visionary, Laurence Pollinger, the book publishing pioneer, too

    Heck, why all this hoopla?

    Unless Lesley's company represents Peter N Walker, the prolific, talented crime-fiction writer

    Have you worked it out yet, then?

    Better known by his writing pseudonym, yes, Nicholas Rhea, the village bobby who wrote the books which inspired Heartbeat, your tv series, no less

    Then, Lesley kindly agreed to get in touch with her literary client for me and ask him to clear up the series/serial conundrum for us

    I'll let Nicholas Rhea explain, in his own words ...

    " ... The distinction between a drama series and a drama serial is that the former has a different storyline in each episode, although generally using the same characters and locations throughout. Heartbeat and The Royal are good examples. Each story terminates at the end of an episode

    "Whereas a drama serial is where one storyline continues through several episodes and good examples are Coronation Street, Emmerdale and other soaps

    "Some costume dramas are also serials, especially if they have been adapted from a novel"

    There, then. Such fun so far, eh? Your character, the bright n brainy, Dr Helen Trent, has been starring in a tv series, not a tv serial and now we know the difference

    Yet, jeez, Miss Sophie, me at breakfast here, still convinced cereal means munching Kellogg's cornflakes

    This Queen's English hokum, respectfully submitted by Trevor Malcolm, but with due appreciation and credit to Lesley Pollinger for her gracious co-operation, and to Nicholas Rhea for his reassuringly clear explanation, thanks

    -----

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  18. Now, that’s what I call thorough research: contacting the source of the quote! Thanks. The difference between series and serial is very clear to me now. The reason why I didn't get it in the first place is that in my language we use the same term for both formats - as well as for a rather popular 2-episode unit as part of a longer series. That'll be my 'excuse', anyway! ;o)

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  19. When Sophie Ward came to Heartbeat I just could'nt keep my eyes off the series. You were the best really, so beautiful and nice. And I love your blog. I know this is not the place for fanpost but I really admire you too.:-) Now, in Finland they are showing the heartbeat for a million time, but still I love it.

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    1. Thank you, Saara. Very pleased you like the show : )

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