BVA ARCHIVE: Profiles
A day in the life of Mel Churcher - International acting, voice and presentation coach
I hate getting up in the mornings. When I was (a lot) younger, and an actress, my agent didn't dare ring me before eleven – and that was early for me. But now, after fifteen years of doing movies, and often getting up so early that it seems to me the middle of the night, I start to feel guilty if I'm in bed much after nine. If I'm teaching at home then I try to set the first slot for 10.30, which gives me an hour and a half to wake up. Even then, I reckon my afternoon sessions get better value for money! My son is the same, only his day tends to start at 4pm.
We moved to the countryside of Suffolk last year. I thought I'd hate it but I don't. On the contrary, I've rediscovered real life and would happily potter in the garden all day every day if I didn't have to earn a living. But since I do, unless I am on a movie, I try to cram everything into a three-day week.
That is how I found myself the other morning, getting up at that dreaded 5am to be at Waterloo for 7am. I've tried to cut down but still find I have to allow almost an hour to be up and out, no matter how hard I try to be quicker. Even if I lay out all the vitamin pills the night before and remember to charge the toothbrush, something will delay me – the trousers don't fit any more, I get hooked on an item on the radio or breakfast falls onto the clean shirt.
I was on this particular film in order to help a young actor cope with a very emotional scene. I try not to work with children. I don't mind them but I usually do mind the parents. Children are also terribly unpredictable, so one day they're wonderful and everyone thinks you're a miracle worker, and the next day they're not and you're not!
Actually, this boy's parents were very nice and so was he. But he was, predictably, unpredictable. On a really difficult dialogue scene earlier in the week, he had been wonderful, but today was a scene we were re-shooting because, the first time round, he had been unable to look like anything other than a little boy worried about his tight shoes, his tummy ache and how soon he'd get home.
I'd been told that I would finish by three and I hoped they were right as I had an actor to see for pre-production work on a BBC series at five at the production company's offices in Islington. It is unusual to do less than 12 hours on a movie but my luck was in due to a combination of my charge's age and the stationmaster at Waterloo.
I'd been told that the whole day was at the station itself, which was also a relief as the previous shoot there had turned out to be on a moving train. It had been a rather surreal day. The film had hired out a carriage on a train bound for Eastbourne and the whole crew had travelled there and back twice that day filming as we went. We had changed trains once and, as the seats were a different colour, that hadn't helped continuity. And the six hours on a train hadn't helped my charge's tummy ache. I had been pleased that I had nothing planned for the end of that day as it's pretty tricky to make a discreet exit from a moving train.
Anyway, it is now 6am and here I am off to Waterloo and sailing along the usually busy route long before any traffic, or congestion charges, set in. Thanks to my excellent sat-nav, I navigate London and arrive in time for a second breakfast and a few words of encouragement to my young contender.
Then I accompany him on to the windy, wet end of platform 3, collect my headphones from the sound mixer (which always get embarrassingly tangled in my glasses string) and mutter with the director. I alternate between beaming at him encouragingly and talking about what it feels like to be scared silly. I urge him to yell his head off and offer advice to his Dad on how to get him to use steam when he goes home tonight with a sore throat.
We do take after take. Apparently we do definitely have to be off the platform by three (thank goodness) and so everyone is very stressed. Instead of stopping to do the dialogue separately, we have to keep taking the master shot which involves my boy running from one end of the platform to the other, hitting the end rails, looking helplessly at the live rail and then turning, walking to his marks and haranguing the armed policemen following him as loudly as he can. So simple – not. After about thirty takes I am fighting a losing battle with his shoes and am starting to feel some motherly concern so we feed, tend and sympathise. Then gear up for a final push. I've discovered that the 'method' approach doesn't work here, as my charge is far too cool at twelve to feel fear so we pretend he is his younger brother, which helps a bit.
At last we all mutually surrender and call it a day. I congratulate my young actor on a brilliant job, commiserate with my director for not quite getting what she wanted (yes, a woman director – extremely unusual and welcome) and thank the sound mixer for his excellent headphones that made my actor's words ring loudly in my ears, even if in nobody else's.
Then, pausing for a Starbucks chai latté, and an expensive twenty pence visit to the ladies loos, I return to my car. I have a cunning plan. I have to go back for a run-through of Macbeth at Regent's Park after my lesson in Islington. We have the delightful privilege of having free parking cards for the Inner and Outer Circles whilst we are working there. We have to hand them in each day but, because I was working there the day before, I have hung on to mine. So I drive up to Regent's Park, carefully avoiding the congestion charge by going up Park Lane and the Edgware Road and leave the car on the Outer Circle as near Baker Street tube as I can.
Then I go by tube to King's Cross and walk to the offices. I'm actually early for once, so I stop for yet another coffee and a few phone calls. Then with the help of my mini-A-Z (no, I don't carry my sat-nav) finally find the place. As I wait in reception, I realize that they produce some of the most successful TV around and that I should have charged them more but, no matter, this is a nice gig, Two hours a week for several months to prepare this young lead actor for this next series of a children's serial. And I can set my own day.
This is our fourth session but the first at this venue. He arrives late, having lost his way and the young producer gives him a slightly hard time before leaving us together. I enjoy these sessions and I think he does too. He is sixteen (so no chaperone) and already has a fan club for the first series. The company want him to improve but also, philanthropically, want him to have some training and to approach the work seriously. I am trying to persuade him to stay at school until he is eighteen and then to go to drama school if he still wants to be an actor. But I suspect he will get an agent who will persuade him to work instead. Then there is a very real danger that he will never bridge the gap between child and adult actor. We do breathing and relaxation, voice work, surreal improvisations, text and camera work. He tends to 'act' which means he screws his face up and pretends. The first time we met, I asked him what he thought acting was and he said it was 'lying', I am trying to persuade him that it is 'telling the truth' – at least for the moment you are telling it.
He does Drama GCSE, which means that when he improvises, he wants to entertain me with a little story. So he will do a few things – stop – and say, "I can't think of anything else". I am showing him that if he believes in the situation, he can stay in it for ever, and that he doesn't have to entertain me - only to believe in it.
Anyway we enjoy ourselves. Soon we will have to work on the proper scripts so I am making the most of this open time together.
We part at seven and I race back uphill to the tube. The run at the park began at six but I have warned them that I won't be in till the second half. We are still in the small rehearsal rooms but this is the last run before we go to the large open air theatre for the technical week. I have seen all the cast one-to-one but haven't seen them in action yet.
For the last twelve years I have been the voice coach at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park. This year we are doing the usual Midsummer Night's dream and Macbeth. This will probably be my last as Ian Talbot, the Artistic Director, is stepping down on this, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the theatre. So it seems a fitting year to back out myself. Ian played Bottom when I was Hermia in 'Midsummer Night's Dream' in 1975. This year he will play Bottom again and I hope he will beat all records on how long he takes to 'Die, Die, Die'!
I get to the car at twenty to eight and race into the Inner Circle, park wildly and run up the path to the rehearsal rooms. They are just returning to the rehearsal from a half time break. 'Great timing' says Kristi our motherly stage manager and puts a cup of tea into my hand as she shows me into a seat on the edge of the space. Apart from one actor who is a worry, as he plays on constriction, the actors are wonderful. The play is gripping but the fight scenes are a little unnerving. The blades come dangerously close to us watchers, a dead body fall hard on my foot and I hope all the superstitions will come to nothing. I have been getting very dizzy lately as I keep inadvertently quoting and then have to turn round three times and swear.
At the end, I give a couple of private notes and have a word with the director then slip back to the car. Next week will be tech week and I shall help them to enjoy one of the most challenging but rewarding spaces in London. On a hot still night, it is the most perfect theatre imaginable.
I suddenly feel exhausted and have to keep myself awake on the way back to the flat but the traffic, thankfully, is past rush hour and I'm back home for the end of news at ten.
I ring my husband and ask how the gardening has gone and whether he's seen any ducklings today. (We've got mallards nesting all over the garden). Then I have a late supper with a large glass of wine. I will try to be good tomorrow. I watch television till midnight, flicking from channel to channel, then make a hot-water bottle, clean my teeth and fall in to bed. With relief, I set my alarm clock for nine.
Just before I drop off to sleep, I remember that I've forgotten to drop the parking permit off at Regent's Park.