Monday, 2 March 2009


It is unfortunate that actors are ever called upon to make speeches, particularly the impromptu kind, but it often occurs that a body of people, a charitable organisation say, or an events company, decide to commission an actor to speak on an appropriate subject, to an invited audience, touching lightly on their own illustrious lives and delivering the material with a blend of solemnity (for the sake of the cause) and humour (for the sake of the audience) that only the literate love child of Shami Chakrabarti and P.G.Wodehouse might produce. Actors are used to speaking in public, the thinking goes, they are comfortable in the spotlight, and people like to watch them, will even pay to watch them. They bring publicity, they embrace a good cause, and my kids/mother/husband loved them in that film/show/photo shoot.
The vital ingredient missing in this recipe is that of the writer. It is the writer who creates the character that the actor assumes, the writer who creates clever/funny/interesting people and the writer who has a point to make. Actors can only pretend to do any of these things. They are good at pretending, so good that they may get asked for medical advice by strangers when all they did was show up on the set of ER dressed as a surgeon. At this point, actors sometimes get confused and may offer a diagnosis. The easiest person for an actor to deceive is himself. The important thing to remember is that even though both parties believe in the character, the actor knows nothing about medicine and any advice should be promptly ignored.
Strip the actor of their character and of their script and they are reduced to themselves, a person who knows an awful lot about pretending and about as much as anybody else on any other subject, perhaps even slightly less. Most people will have a skill that they use to earn a living and so will have some training in a practical/academic capacity. They will know how to engineer a bridge/play the trombone/fly a plane. Actors can wear the right sort of beard to look like Mr. Brunel/purse their lips with a musician's intensity/sleep with the cabin crew. But they haven't learned how to do anything with any degree of expertise, except fake it.
Most people, when asked to give a speech would either decline or start studying very hard. Politicians employ speechwriters, television hosts read from cue cards, even the best man researches his jokes. But actors are used to standing in front of hundreds or thousands of people and making a fool of themselves. They like it. They don't need to prepare, it's just an extension of their day job, isn't it? It's not until I'm standing in the wings of the Albert Hall with a waiting audience of 5,000 and the producer says, 'The band's going to take a while to set up, could you fill for a couple of minutes?' that I understand the true horror of the situation. I have no 'material', I have no speech, I have in fact, no character. For the next five minutes, I get a glimpse into how it must feel to be able to speak another language fluently and to be speaking it to a crowd of people who have no idea what country you even come from. Tumbleweed. If I thought I had got away with it, the look of incredulity tinged with fury on the producer's face when I came off stage, swiftly disabused me. It was such a disaster that the bouncers tried to stop me going to the party after. And I was the host.
So, if an actor stands up at an award ceremony and the rest of the world wonders how they manage to open their cereal in the morning, remember the one thing that actors are totally unsuited for, being themselves.