After a season as an outpatient or reporter on Holby City, it came to my attention that anyone in uniform had to join a particular agency. I was with that agency and just had to hope I got noticed.
One very sunny afternoon in the low lit, Fairfax Studios at BBC Elstree Studios, I waited in anticipation of what my nurses uniform would be like. Finally, I was an A&E nurse. Whatever that meant. But I soon learned.
In the costume room, there was a hanger with my name on it – recognition at last! Attached was an aqua coloured two piece, v-neck pyjama set. My first impression was that they had given me a surgeon’s costume by mistake. My questioning caused the costume mistress to doubt herself and re-check her notes. There was no mistake made, I simply wasn’t up to speed on NHS wear and why would I be.
The loose fitting short sleeved top had two patch pockets on the hem, which was where I kept my earrings, bracelet and watch. The mobile was prohibited on set, but when they got smaller we all carried them with us – on silent of course. The downside of this work was living by the phone. That next call could mean a big booking, calling more than 15 mins later was the difference between getting or losing a job.
The trousers were like pyjama pants done up by string. I always felt vulnerable in them, especially during my moon cycle. We had to wear white, slip-on rubber clogs, that I found extremely comfortable. I had been booked for two days and it was suggested I brought my own white trainers if I had them.
I took a long look at myself in the mirror, my hair pinned back and I saw this intelligent, kind, benevolent, highly trained professional staring back. Weird. I was an ‘actor’. An actor without any drama school training. I waltzed into the green room briefly before being ushered onto the set. The rest of the uniformed extras were gathered around the hospital ward reception desk and conversations ensued thus:
Estimations of what time the wrap would be that day, dependent on call times, followed by routes into Elstree, how many days booked for this week and next, what other jobs were in pipeline, car issues and gossip about someone that was always late or bitchy A.D stories or how nice an actress was for holding a lift door open…etc.
While I made new friends, I realised over an hour had passed and it would seem the SA patients and others were sat in the designated green room. I sensed a subtle ‘them and us’ clique, I never wanted to be a part of and quickly dismissed it as an inevitable by product of any workplace. It was the same thing the next day. We, the uniformed ones – gathered on the set around the reception prior to shooting.
I heard whispers of a new block in progress without any understanding of what that meant, but found I was about to be promoted to a ‘regular’ on Holby City, as an Accident & Emergency nurse in scrubs.
The dark aqua colour really suited my skin tone and I relished donning the uniform. At first. I was being booked for 3 to 4 days a week with call times that varied from early morning starts of 7.45, 8.30 or 10.00 and 11am. Worst call times were 12.30 which still meant an early morning start. The late afternoon shifts from 13.30 or 14.45 meant working through the evening.
On a warm summer evening, it became more of a wrench.
My particular role meant I worked on different blocks, because I was an A&E nurse I would get patients from the ambulance and follow through with the porter and doctors to any of the wards. This kept my options open with more work than usual. I would turn up never knowing if I was on Blue or Green block. I got totally confused after a while.
The timings began to wreak havoc on my social life. I couldn’t plan a family occasion or friends’ birthdays too far in advance. I had to explain to everyone why I couldn’t commit to anything. The curse began to strike where social engagements would regularly clash with bookings, forced to bring my evening wear and heels with me and making mad dashes to the loo to make myself up on the way home. At the event, I would be the last person to arrive and first to leave because of an early start! Pesky call times were rarely in my favour and days off, for all the planning in the world became duvet days. As for weekend bookings…
This went on for months, to the extent I referred to call times as shifts. The camaraderie between actors, supporting artists and crew was generally really friendly, which helped. It wasn’t a chore when I got there, but it did put a strain on my relationships outside. I watched the seasons come and go.
The early mornings when it snowed were the absolute worst. Sometimes our green room didn’t meet Health & Safety standards in terms of warmth. We used to run around stealing fan heaters wherever we would find them or wheel in the gas filled heaters from continuity to our room.
Things had got so bad that a wonderful leading actor on the show refused to go back on set until we extras had been given proper heating.
He really stuck his neck out for us after walking past our room one freezing cold afternoon. We even had to think up ingenious ways to wear thermals indoors under those loose uniforms. It added a few pounds on top of the unavoidable on-screen pounds too.
Holby City was shot almost exclusively on the BBC Elstree lot, shared with Eastenders. It wasn’t uncommon to find photojournalists on set taking publicity images for TV soap magazines.
This particular shift I was on was truly taking it’s toll on my fitness. As A&E nurse I had to escort the patient post ambulance and wheel them on a gurney at speed with a team of doctors, a porter and nurses down a corridor into a lift, from the lift down another corridor still carrying the drama of urgency, turning left, then right into a pre-op department where a consultant surgeon reeled off some Latin medical jargons to the other actors. It was a totally surreal time. I was hearing the high octane, dramatically script unfold right in front of me, having not been privy to the scene or script beforehand.
The genuine adrenalin was pretty special and that was just the rehearsal. I was enthused that we got a chance to repeat this performance, this time given instructions to nod my head and squeeze the clear bag of liquid hanging over the patient, to exact timings. A technical nurse demonstrated how I was to do it, keeping time while on the move. I was being directed. How much was it again for under 25 words? Does a nod count? What a responsibility. Be careful what you wish for.
Here we go again “Standby….And turning!!!”
What a rush, I hummed the music to ‘Casualty’ in my head, to keep my energy going.
“Colloids! More colloids!” the nurse ordered at me. She was all too convincing and I focused on the job in hand as if my life depended on it, let alone the patient’s. The pressure that I might let the other actors down was immense. My own heart was beating out of my mouth as we ran up and down the corridors again. And again. And again. And…
The thrill was beginning to wane.
In the pretend lifts with all the actors involved, was another surreal moment because I kept forgetting that it wasn’t a real lift. The props guy had to physically open the door and we’d be on the same floor. I immediately took on my lift persona. Saying nothing and barely breathing. A testament to the talent of the actors I witnessed, was their collective ability to go from nought to intense in a matter of seconds. Laughing and joking all the way up to the point of action. After each complex, medically termed take, they switched effortlessly to banter again. That was a show in itself. No such skill from me.
One last take, at the top of pre-op theatre, the photojournalist tried to ‘set up’ a shot re-enacting the scene, with full intensity for impact intact. After overhearing, I asked the only extra in the scene, the porter, whether we were included? He reckoned no. I reckoned yes.
I slipped into the shot as before and wondered if I would be spotted. But the actors didn’t seem concerned and the photographer wasn’t to know I was a Supporting Artist.
The photographer would have shot hundreds of frames all day, what were the chances I would end up in print? I did. It was my first time, but wasn’t to be my last.
I was spotted by an SA/nurse, who bought me a copy. Only another extra would even concern themselves with that kind of scrutiny. My friends to this day tease me if there is a nose bleed or minor sickness occurring among us and look to me for advice. “She was an A&E nurse on Holby” they would cry. I acknowledge them and roll up my sleeves to play along.
The shifts, however, began to take their toll and I was relieved when there was a shake up of extras in uniform. I didn’t make the cut. Glad of it. The NHS staff in real life are special people who do an amazing job. It was hard work and I was only play acting. The BBC had a hard job trying to recreate their world. NHS, I salute you guys!
Before filming, JaxEtta worked in the music industry – as an ex-signed artist, a record company secretary & even had a spell producing music video promos. After a return to study TV & Multimedia, she hustled her way into the BBC’s PA production pool before becoming an extra after much persuasion from a friend in a casting agency. In ‘Extrabiscuits’ Jax relives her most memorable times whether thats working on Holby City, with Joey Essex or being in love (actually!) with Colin Firth. More info on Jax can be found on her website here or her Etsy shop here. Be sure to tune into Extrafriends every month for regular updates in her exclusive column!