EVER wondered when you’re watching ‘Line of Duty’ on a Sunday night what it would be like to be caught in Superintendent Ted Hastings’ terrifying glare?
That’s it on the right. Pretty scary stuff. Forensic. Piercing. Merciless.
You just know you would be shopping ‘bent coppers’ faster than Ted could ‘suck diesel’.
Well, I have a confession to make. That withering gaze burned into me on several occasions - and, rest assured, there was no acting involved!
This story begins in the winter of 1991 when I decided to kill two birds with one stone - by turning around my life as a penniless student by setting the acting world on fire.
Better still, I knew ‘a man’. He was a casting agent for a slew of TV productions at the time, and he was a regular at a hotel a stone’s throw from my student digs.
Emboldened by the prospect of a hard candy Christmas, I bit the bullet and introduced myself. And it turned out that my timing was impeccable.
He was attempting to rustle up a merry band of ‘extras’ to populate a bar in a new drama filmed against the backdrop of the Troubles. The money was pretty good too - about £100, which was around 50 pints in old money.
Still pretty confident that this would be a funny story for Michael Parkinson when I reflected on my first faltering steps on the acting ladder, I signed on the dotted line.
After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Fast forward a couple of months and myself and my fellow ‘background artistes’ were shivering under an inky Belfast sky. It was 5.30am and we were waiting for transport to the location, which was a former pub near the border.
After a bone-rattling trip down country we finally arrived at the set and we were sent to wardrobe. We had been told to come in clothes you would wear to the pub, but it soon became apparent that they had a very different drinking establishment in mind!
My freshly pressed suit and polished Chelsea boots were swiftly removed. While I waited to see what I would be donning instead, a fellow extra was wincing as they trimmed his flowing locks into a rather intimidating crew cut. Never worry, they said, there would be a few quid in it for him.
I had bigger fish to fry. My new gear had arrived - a pair of muddy boots and a natty boiler suit. Then, to top it all, a frankly hideous woolen bobble hat. As a final flourish, an oily rag was dragged across my face.
Still reeling from the prospect of actually appearing on television in that get up, we were led to a production room and separated into teams.
And only then did we find out what we were actually taking part in. It was to be called ‘Force of Duty’ - I kid you not - and it would air in July the following year.
And there was some serious talent involved. Behind the camera was Pat O’Connor, who had filmed the award-winning ‘Cal’ in 1984.
Playing the grizzled police leads were Adrian Dunbar and Donal McCann.
Dunbar was currently flying high after the success of ‘Hear My Song’ that very year, which he had written and starred in. It went on to garner BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations. The following year he would star in Oscar winner ‘The Crying Game’. Not bad for a young fella from Enniskillen.
McCann had some serious acting chops too. An alumni of the Abbey Players, he had put in scene stealing turns in such big movies as ‘Out of Africa’ and ‘The Dead’, John Huston’s last film.
And then, of course, there was the new kid on the block from Antrim.
The producers clearly knew they were onto a good thing too. I was to take part in a tense scene. There would be a line. And a close up. Piece of cake.
The set up was simplicity itself. Myself and two paramilitary pals were winding down after a tough day of being hard men with a few pints and a game of pool when two coppers had the audacity to dander through the bar.
The mood changes. The hilarious banter stops. The hard staring begins.
Messrs Dunbar and McCann were due to silently enter the room right behind me and then walk through in one slinky take with the dashing young ‘hood’ with the bobble hat glaring at them as they nervously exit stage left.
After what seemed like an age, it was finally our turn to shine and we were called to take our places. And ‘Action’.
A young tough was lining up his shot at the pool table. The stakes were clearly high.
“It’s going in, so it is,” he said.
Another man, a more imposing specimen - probably the leader - was watching him, leaning on his cue.
He sagely shook his head in the negative, the bobble on his hat rocking gently. And then he spoke:
“Aye,” he said, followed by a long and devastating pause.
“In your dreams.”
You could cut the tension with a knife, but before we could see our hero proved correct the door behind him clicked open and the two sheepish police officers disturbed what had basically been a masterclass.
And that’s when things got a bit tricky.
The camera - which was a bit like one of those huge studios ones you used to see straying into shot in the likes of Blue Peter - was on the move tracking the RUC men as they walked around the pool table and towards the door.
My job was to silently climb over the spaghetti of cables and slide behind the camera man so I could make it to an X on the floor from where I could deliver a truly filthy look to hasten them on their way.
In the first take I was nowhere near, stranded several feet away, my route blocked by the camera.
“Not to worry,” said the director. “Let’s reset and we’ll go again.”
The nominal stars made their way back around the pool table. The mood was relaxed. We’ll get it this time.
In Take Two I wasn’t taking any chances and I made my run early. While the camera was still on me, in fact.
‘Cut!” said the director, slightly more testily. “One more.”
Take Three saw me collide with the camera itself, and there it was - the first sign of that icy, ever-so-slightly disdainful look that would help make Ted Hastings a household name.
By Take Seven it looked for all the world that he, his co-star, the director and everyone in that cramped little room meant me physical harm.
So did I eventually get it right? Yes, after 13 agonising takes.
With the take in the can, dejected and red-faced I returned to the holding area for the extras where the mickey-taking began in earnest.
And then who should appear but Adrian Dunbar. He chit-chatted for a while and then I felt those pale blue eyes on me once again.
“Hey young fella,” he said.
“You really nailed that!”
Cue much amusement and a realisation that acting was probably not for me.
Fast forward yet again to the summer of 1992 and the night of the premiere.
Did my big scene make the final cut? Do I look like I came up the Lagan in a bubble?
No, idiot in bubble hat did not make an appearance!
But did I brush myself down and give acting another go?
Aye, in your dreams...