There are no small parts, only small actors they say. “They” usually being your agent or other actors trying to make you feel better because most of the lines you had when you were offered the part have been cut prior to recording.
The respected character actor Michael Ansara died recently. Not a household name but certainly someone who my and my parents’ generation would recognise when he cropped up on television (which he did frequently). Yes, being in genre shows like Star Trek (in which he was a Klingon in the original series before reprising the role in both DS9 and Voyager), The Outer Limits (a very memorable turn in Soldier), The Time Tunnel, Buck Rogers and Batman- The Animated Series helps to keep your name alive thanks to geeks like me, but his clout extended beyond the anorak’s purview. His early starring role in Broken Arrow certainly ensured his was a face you’d recognise when it appeared in numerous subsequent TV shows and films.
So when he died and The Times described him as “the undisputed king of bit parts in cult television” I was rather irritated (some would say that that is my natural state: if you’re one of those, suffice to say it made me more irritated than usual). There is a sort of lofty disdain that is dishearteningly prevalent amongst the people being paid good money to conjure appropriate words when writing about genre shows or the acting profession. You shouldn’t be allowed to cover television if the basic nomenclature used in the business is beyond you. A bit part is one assayed by an extra or walk-on who has been chucked a couple of lines. Ansara was always the main guest star whenever he appeared: playing roles of a size and status most members of the profession would kill for. He was a successful actor. That the journalist in question doesn’t know this reflects badly on the journalist not the actor but you’d never know this from the way the denizens of Grub Street conduct themselves.
So often this is the case though. The Guardian did it when trying to undermine the political activities of the eccentric but busy character actor Brian McDermott. No Ansara he nonetheless managed to notch up about 100 TV credits. All told, that’s a good career – and he wasn’t playing “2nd Man” or “Onlooker” but proper, decent, supporting character parts with a name: oh, and he launched the Bush Theatre too. But because he was standing for UKIP in an election, the journalist’s parting shot was a jovial suggestion that McDermott had been an extra in episodes of Bergerac. An extra. This happens more and more – guest parts are described in the media as extra. No, an extra is a non- speaking background artist. There’s nothing wrong with being one, but that is different from playing a featured part. To secure one of those requires rounds of auditions, being seen excelling on the stage, or giving good work elsewhere and so being recommended. That is not the case with extras, for they do a different job.
Television coverage is increasingly written by people who seemingly care little for the medium they write about. There’s an assumption that most television is a bit rubbish (especially if it is old) and that what these actors, writers, directors and designers who have tried hard to create something cogent, thought-provoking, tantalising and entertaining really deserve is a thrashing from the glibbest of tongues as opposed to serious, informed scrutiny. The Guardian even did a Top Fifty TV dramas – as compiled by its critics – that didn’t include Secret Army or Edge Of Darkness. Obviously such things are matters of taste but one got the impression that those illustrious productions didn’t make the list not because they’d been considered and rejected but because most of the critics didn’t know what they were. The outrage at the lack of the Edge Of Darkness prompted one of them to blog about his subsequent viewing of it because he’d never seen it. A working TV critic on a national newspaper who hasn’t seen Edge Of Darkness! I don’t think you’d be allowed to write about sport if you didn’t know who won the World Cup in 198-whatever.
Again, the uselessness I can cope with, it’s when it is accompanied by arrogance that it sticks in my craw. I remember being listed as a Pick Of The Week in the comedy listings in The Times and it mentioned that I had won the Les Dawson Award for comedy. I did, and am proud to have done so. “Is there a Les Dawson Award then?” added the comedy critic in brackets afterwards: after all, what’s a comedy recommendation without a little pejorative aside? Thing is, if you’re The Times comedy critic and you don’t know of the existence of such an award, then that’s your shortcoming rather than that of the recipient of said award. And if you don’t know, or think the award is negligible (which is reasonable – it was a regional thing based on an internet vote) because it hasn’t appeared on your radar (though it was eminently Google-able), then simply don’t mention it. Revelling in ignorance about the medium you write about seems bizarre – especially when such ignorance is used to recommend somebody but, with a little implicit criticism, keep them in their place at the same time (and to what end – apart from to make the journalist look clever?).
Looking clever feels terrific when you’re reviewing something, and it’s fantastic if you can enliven your prose with a witty barb or sparkly turn of phrase … but these things now seem to have replaced the real reasons someone should be writing about their specialist subject. And what reasons are those? Because they love it! Because they are entertained by entertainers, thrilled by popular culture – inspired to put pen to paper and to place bum on seat.
All of the above examples simply wouldn’t happen in other industries. There are loads of well-informed TV geeks who can turn an apt phrase. Few of them seem to do so for the papers though. The nationals tend to promote sub-editors with other specialisms or people who display shocking ignorance or contempt for the medium … Sam Wollaston anyone? And as for Ian Hyland – good God! I shouldn’t think either of them could talk about Herbert Wise or Allan Prior or David Collings. You wouldn’t pay a food writer who described an aubergine as a “sort of rubbish sausage” so why is popular culture often chronicled and scrutinised by the ill-informed and condescending?
We all breathe air, but I wouldn’t expect someone who hasn’t studied its properties to be entrusted with analysing and describing it. Just because we all consume popular culture and mass entertainment doesn’t mean any old bod’s scrutiny of it is worth reading. I am just a plucky amateur and am not angling for a job here – I just feel the need for more Matthew Sweets and fewer A A Gills. It is just that knowing what I know about TV and comedy and seeing the great howlers committed in much that is written about both makes me wonder how much ill-informed crap swaggers across the page on subjects of which I am wholly ignorant – like Science and Music and How To Be Sexy (yes, there are small parts …).