Lady Jane

In early November 1984 I got a week’s work on a Paramount picture called Lady Jane being directed by the biggest name at the time - Trevor Nunn. It turned out to be one of my many Zelig moments in the movies and memorable for the strangest of incidents.

Central Casting said I was to turn up at Lee International Studios in Wembley where I was to be an extra although exactly what type of extra they could not specify. They just said “It’s a costume drama. Wardrobe will kit you out when you get there.”


Lady Jane was the love story of Lady Jane Grey (played by Helena Bonham Carter in her first major film) and Cary Elwes as Lord Guilford Dudley. Lady Jane Grey had been Queen of England for nine days before being beheaded at the Tower of London in 1554 and it was one of the most dramatic events in the history of the English monarchy. David Edgar had written a brilliant screenplay from a story by Chris Bryant and there had already been quite a buzz about the film in the press during the previous weeks.

When I arrived at the studios I was informed that I was going to be one of Helena Bonham Carter’s guards at the Tower of London and was immediately sent off to be fitted for a beard. This development had two great advantages. Firstly, the wearing of a beard fell into the special tariff of a film extra and brought with it an additional fee of £25 a day. Other ‘specials’ as they were known were having your clothes deliberately made wet (a city pavement rainstorm for example) or having a custard pie thrown in your face (a ruling, I imagine, originating in the silent movie era or perhaps during some Norman Wisdom films). The only requirement was that you had to return the beard at the end of the day to get your bonus. No beard, no twenty-five quid but you’d be surprised how many extras took a fancy to their new facial-hair look and would march off to the tube station at the end of the day still wearing their whiskers!


Secondly, and far more importantly, the beard meant I had to be made-up every day in the same make-up suite as Helena Bonham Carter, Cary Elwes, Joss Ackland and Jill Bennett. I would quietly go in and sit in my make-up chair waiting for my turn. None of the film’s stars seemed too bothered by my presence and I sat quietly in my corner as they cranked up for the day ahead with strong coffee, croissants, half-awake chit-chat and showbiz gossip.


Trevor Nunn was an extraordinary director to work with and seemed to thrive on dreaming up bits of ‘business’ for us extras to do. He had me frog-marching poor Cary Elwes under a low arch where we both kept bashing our heads and escorting Joss Ackland like a lovesick puppy whenever he had to make one of his dramatic entrances as Sir John Bridges, Lieutenant of the Tower of London. Through all this I had to wear a heavy armour breastplate and helmet and, unusually for a movie, it was the real thing. On the third day, I didn’t have much to do and had been waiting in my dressing room fully costumed for my call when a runner knocked on the door and said, “Trevor Nunn asks if you wouldn’t mind chatting to some Japanese journalists who are visiting the set today.” I said I’d be more than happy and followed her down to the elaborate Tower of London set.

The journalists were all assembled and Trevor Nunn duly introduced me. “This man is playing one of Lady Jane Grey’s guards at the Tower of London. He will answer any questions you may have.” He then beetled off to another sound stage with his cinematographer Douglas Slocombe and left me to deal with their enquiries. All I could think of was how I was going to blag my way through this unexpected task. After all I was just a bearded extra clanking around the set and hardly qualified to be a spokesman on such a major film.


The group of journos immediately surrounded me with questions galore and one of them asked me what my armour costume was made of? I replied that it was made of metal, probably tin, and tapped it with my finger to make the appropriate sound. But the journalist was not satisfied and insisted it had to be plastic. I repeated that it was not plastic and was metal. By this time all his colleagues had grouped up behind him and were all talking to each other nineteen to the dozen in Japanese. There was much disbelief and shaking of heads as they each tapped away at my costume. I felt like a tree under siege from a squadron of Woodpeckers. Eventually one of them asked me if I would let him wear the breastplate and helmet so he could decide for himself if it was made of plastic or metal. I looked around for unit support but there was no-one close-by so I removed the breastplate and helmet and let him try them on. Unfortunately this seemed to inject some kind of thespian ambition into him and he ran off screaming into the Tower of London set poking his head through portcullis gates, knocking over props and generally running amok between the scenery flats much to the amusement and encouragement of his colleagues. It was at this exact moment that Trevor Nunn reappeared to see what all the commotion was about. I thought I was done for. His face looked like thunder but then it slowly turned into a smile as he said to me “Well done, the film should at least get good reviews in Japan.”