Thursday, 20 October 2011

Reality Bites

How to distinguish between what you can do and what you get paid to pretend to do? After two years playing a doctor on Heartbeat and one year visiting a hospital on Holby City, I just about learned to take a pulse and remembered to put the stethoscope in my ears before trying to listen to a patient's chest (by patient, I mean an actor pretending to be a patient, this is where the confusion starts). But mostly I had to be able to talk the talk, that's the important bit, especially in an emergency situation, of which there weren't too many in fantasy 1960's rural Yorkshire. Nevertheless, confidence in medical technicalities and language is a sort of learned skill. And I got used to taking control when another character was feeling poorly, to being the health detective when a symptom was mentioned, and generally the fount of medical knowledge. While in reality I am only equipped with a Biology 'O'-level and a tendency to pass out when I give blood.

Still, my experience at pretending to be a doctor means that I am sometimes asked if I will attend in a medical situation or give medical advice to passers by. That is a confusion on the part of a viewer. Worse, is what I might kindly call a 'learned behaviour' where I actually think that I am a doctor and proceed to offer some sort of medical advice in the mistaken belief that I am helping. After a few minutes of this, the helpfully advised one may rightly ask, 'Are you a doctor?' and it is only then, and reluctantly, that I will admit that not only am I very much not a doctor but that I am making it all up.

And being a doctor is only the tip of the iceberg of delusion. I also believe I can speak other languages (A Time of Indifference), save marriages (Law and Order), get people out of jail (Hustle), play the piano (Little Dorrit, A Summer Story, almost anything where I wear a corset) and run a country estate (Land Girls but ditto about the corset). That is, I have an underlying sense that I know how to do these things and occasionally attempt them, only to be confronted with the realisation, more or less swiftly depending on the event, that I am able to do none of them. I can spend my days, instead of feeling okay about my luck in getting paid to pretend to be qualified, constantly being reminded that I have very few special skills (see separate post) and virtually no practical qualifications. It can be demoralising.

The net effect is that it can be hard to believe that I am ever actually doing something and not just pretending to do it. The paradigm is teaching an acting class where I find myself feeling as though I am pretending to be a teacher who's trying to teach people to pretend. But perhaps the greatest casualty (not Casualty in which I am a patient not a doctor) is the nagging sense of unreality about existing at all, a general sense that all situations are contrived, all clothes a costume, all behaviour a performance. My partner certainly has her suspicions that I am not altogether attached to the world. 'It's not funny, it's your life' she reminds me when I seem particularly disconnected. Harsh words, perhaps, but necessary. For how can you possibly 'seize the day' when you are dreaming of a different day in a different body possibly on a different planet certainly in a different reality? Often, she is the only one who can tell that I am only pretending that my feet are on the ground. I have to concentrate.

Although, I'm pretty sure I could do a serviceable tracheotomy with the right biro. I learned it from Mia Farrow ( The Haunting of Julia ).



  1. I’ve never thought about just how much ‘pretending’ as a profession would have such a disconnecting effect on your ‘real’ life. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to cope, I find it hard to stay connected to everyday life as it is, any more confusion and I’d be lost.

    It makes you wonder about all the people out there that pretend in the real world. Illusion really is a powerful thing: politicians, upper management who seemingly work their way up the ladder without actually doing any hard work..etc. True cases of mind over matter, they truly believe that they can do what they claim to be able to do. It works both ways; those that believe it so strongly also convince others of their prowess. It’s all brainwashing really. We’re all actors; some of us are just a heck of a lot better at it than others!

  2. Yes, Leah, the Emperor's New Clothes. Of course, most actors live in fear of being told they aren't fooling anyone. I wonder if that is true of politcians.

  3. Thanks, Kellas. Guess feeling faint in class inspired me!

  4. Hi Sophie,

    Love the post :-) When I started studying science-y things away from the stage, I came across Erving Goffman's social psychology studies into group behaviour :-

    It was a seminal work for many in the social sciences, but really part of those same performance questions you raise here. Are we all acting? When? Do we ever stop? I like to think it's all a kind of collective 'thinking-out-loud.' Narrative role-play to make sense of the bigger complexity outside. It's also wonderfully absurd! Just played a doctor myself. A bigger danger to the public you could never imagine ;-)

    Steve McGann

  5. That sounds like a great piece of work. I'm going to look into it as my PhD touches on concepts of identity. Thanks Dr Steve!

  6. Funny you should mention "The Haunting of Julia" because this was the first thing that sprang to my mind before I was even through reading your post: be sure to chew carefully on your apples; chances are slim that you will come back as some sort of entity or another.

    Well, I guess it needed to be said.

  7. You mean I'm not an entity now? I'll have to stop wandering the corridors at night. More sleep, less wailing. Got it.