The Times April 24, 2006
Extras, Extras . . . weep all about it
Last night's TV with Caitlin Moran
Sunday brought the 14th return of Sharpe in Sharpe's Challenge (ITV1; concludes tonight) — this time around, modishly set in the India of the Raj, and featuring lots of hot chicks in saris doing Hindu booty dances. Despite all Sean Bean's sweaty, tetchy swearing and the alpha-ish brio of the numerous battle scenes, the idle viewer's thoughts turned, on many occasions, to the plight of the programme's extras. It is a psychologically ruinous existence, out there, on the edge of the frame. It is aspiration re-cast as limbo. It is a small, public hell. For every party scene in Murder City, we can see dozens of people who, even at the age of 42, don't doubt that by 2007 they'll be brunching with Al Pacino.
Clearly, this is a life of madness. There's no equivalent to the extra in the real world. There aren't people who "help out" at warehouse fires with a bucket, hoping a fireman will eventually take them on and train them to use the big ladders. In Spearmint Rhino, there aren't chicks knocking around who've shown only their ankles for the last ten years but hope, one day, if someone from Tiger Aspect is in and spots their potential, to get their bits out. It is only the extra who is tortured with this ever-present, semi- professional mirage of hope.
For those who do subsist on a diet of delusion, parental handouts and The Stage, this was a particularly bad week, due mainly to a run on horrific beheadings for inconsequential characters. In Sharpe's Challenge, one of Sharpe's challenges seemed to be finding new and exciting ways for those on the minimum wage to die. Being just that kind of bloke, like, and fully aware that "No bugger else'll do it", Sharpe spent the best part of the weekend foregoing DIY or a mini-break to Prague to rescue a beautiful woman from a murderous rajah instead. The murderous rajah, meanwhile, was flicking through Spotlight and drawling: "This one can apparently fence and do a Cockney accent. I think we should kill him . . . WITH A NAIL!"
At this point, some slightly luckier, beefy Asian extras got to stand in the centre of the frame, and plunge a six-inch nail into a British soldier's head — total extent of his dialogue: "Margh!"
Still, the guys with the nails were fortunate. Their comrades with the shorter straws were having their heads twisted off like the cap on a screw-top bottle of wine, in an unhappy combination of showbiz and osteopathy. Surely the most benighted of all, however, were the dozens of hopefuls who ended up being decapitated. Decapitation means that, for a few weeks last summer, a considerable body of Britain's fledgeling thespiana earned their money being buried up to their necks in sand, and then pretending to be a severed head. And of course, as directors prefer their corpses with their eyes open — staring atmospherically into death's endless tunnel — that meant a lot of little guys getting sand kicked into their eyes by bigger boys, like Sean Bean.
There ought to be a sitcom about the life of the extra. You could get lots of material out of it, you really could.