A brief history of the Unions

CrowdofExtrasBack in the last century, if you wanted to work in Film or Television, you had to be a member of a trade union, these were the days of closed shop. To be a Background Artiste or Extra in films, you needed to be a member of the Film Artistes Association, to work as a Supporting Artiste on Television, you needed to be a member of Equity.
The unions were responsible for negotiating and enforcing the agreements under which everyone worked, and more importantly, the rates of pay Background Artistes earned. Shop stewards would go around on set checking everyone’s membership cards and woe betide any non-union member who tried to obtain work.
Many variety artists worked as Supporting Artists or Walk Ons on television, in between their regular stage jobs. The criteria to join Equity were strict, with performers having to; attend a recognised drama school, or work on the stage in Rep or in the West End, or perform as a variety / cabaret artist on cruise ships or on the club circuit, all for a certain number of weeks, before obtaining the elusive Equity Card.
The criteria to join the FAA were neither as strict, nor as straight forward. The books would open if it was particularly busy in the studios and more crowd were required, or if people with a certain look were needed, eg young men to play soldiers in the many war films of the 60s and 70s. At one point, film artists were in such demand that the FAA even opened their books to allow Equity members to join. Generally though, in the closed working environment of the film industry, in order to join the FAA, you had to know someone who could get you in.
During the heyday of the British film industry in the 60s and 70s, the closed shop meant that the number of people allowed to work as film extras was tightly controlled, subsequently there was plenty of work for union members. Film extras would move from one film production to another. When it was particularly busy and large crowds were required on several films simultaneously, one production might offer an extra pound a day payment on top of the basic agreement rate to encourage people to work on their film. And of course in those days payment was in cash at the end of each working day with no commission deducted. The (8%) commission was paid directly from the production company to the agency, there only being one agency for film extras – Central Casting, with 2000 artistes on its books.


How things have changed. Since Margaret Thatcher caused the demise of the closed shop in the 1980’s, anybody can now work as an extra without being a member of either union. Far from the days when productions would offer more than the going rate to try and persuade people to work on their film, now people are prepared to work for nothing or below the agreed union rate for the perceived glamour of working on a movie. There is nothing glamorous about getting to a studio or a cold wet muddy field at 5am.
Sadly, in our fame obsessed world, everyone thinks they are going to be discovered. Newbies, after their first days work on a low budget film, start getting obsessed with their IMDB or Star Now ratings. Hundreds of people enter the business with every open casting advertised in a local paper or on Star Now. All are prepared to work for less than the unions negotiated rates, because they’ve never heard of the unions and know nothing of the agreements that have been hard earned through negotiation over the years.
May I give all those people a reality check. No one cares about your IMDB profiles or your StarNow ratings except you. You will never be discovered, this will not be your stepping stone to fame, success and fortune. Whereas once you could make a good living with regular work as a background artist, now, because of this massive influx of the deluded and talentless, production companies realise that they no longer have to pay the correct rates of pay, thereby ruining the industry for all of us who take the work seriously.
In no other industry does a complete newcomer do one days work and then think they are at the top of their profession. Yet a newcomer to this business can do one day as a film extra and think they are an actor or a movie director destined for Hollywood. Those performers who spend 3 years at a recognised drama school or the technicians attending film school may have something to say about that. No wonder the crowd are treated with such contempt by the cast and crew.
The closed shop had many faults, and could quite rightly be criticised for its restrictive practices, yet the alternative is proving much worse, with too many people chasing too few jobs for far less money. Unless the many individuals who work as Background Artists are prepared to take their work and this industry seriously and join the unions to help protect our agreements, the opportunities to work will decline and the pay rates will fall to the National Minimum


Roger Evans left his native Cardiff for London in 1985 to attend thenotorious Polytechnic of Central London and subsequently work in the music industry. Having run studios, set up a record label and artist management company, he was lured into the world of film and television as a Background Artiste with the hope of fame and stardom and the promise of quality catering. Quickly realising that this work was not going to provide a fast track to Hollywood, the on-set catering still provides his greatest inspiration. Over the past decade he has worked on over 500 film and TV productions including: Harry Potter, Skyfall, Hugo, Silk, Eastenders, and Spooks – he’s even produced his own movie: The Scared of Death Society, (2010). He is currently Communications Officer for the Film Artists Association. In his guise of Victor de Milo, he runs the infamous Casino Royale club night in Camden Town. Further info on Roger can be found on his website, www.rogerevans-actor.co.uk or on twitter.com/Victordemilo