It’s tough to be an actor, or anything else

Over the last couple of weeks, the acting world has lost several people – Paul Bhattacharjee, Briony McRoberts, Richard Gent, Cory Monteith – in ways that have thrown into focus the various mental health pressures that people in the entertainment industry share with others in other walks of life, as well as where the issues differ.

Mental health issues are rarely caused by one solitary outside influence. Everybody’s own personal health can have a myriad of contributory causes and pressures. That means that treatment and preventive measures vary, too. That’s partly why seeking help when one needs it is so imperative – another being that, if you are experiencing depression yourself, you’re rarely the best judge of your own illness.

The acting world in particular has pressures that many other professions don’t. Actors tend to have to move form short term job to short term job, often taking roles which pay poorly – if at all – in the hope that the exposure and/or experience will pay off with greater, better paid roles in the future. And far more than anybody in an office job – or even a backstage career within the entertainment industry – you are judged, judged and judged again.

Not being an actor myself, I’m limited to seeing my actor friends’ lows – and, it has to be emphasised, the highs as well. It’s far from all misery. But even on the best projects, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful ones, there are always avenues for individuals to encounter mental health problems.

In the first of a number of articles published recently on this topic, Matt Hemley wrote for The Stage, quoting Eddie Redmayne:

Although it looks great – and is great – there are also shoddy moments when you feel really rotten, and when it’s going well, you’re not allowed to complain.

While producer Richard Jordan, also for The Stage, emphasises that it’s not just actors:

It’s important we recognise that in our industry depression is not exclusively an illness affecting just actors but people across all sectors of the business. Those affected can also be great masters at hiding it, with a frequent fear that, by admitting being a sufferer, you might be viewed as unreliable and unemployable in this small and gossip-fuelled industry.

And today, over in The Guardian, Michael Simkins asks if the industry itself is too cruel:

The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it. What’s more, with no qualifications or tests to assess how good (or bad) you are, the only benchmark is success.

Regardless of the potential pressures, actors put themselves through the wringer time and time again. The end result is usually great enjoyment for audiences of theatre, TV, radio, film – but we need to ensure that it’s not at the expense of anyone’s health and wellbeing.

Actress Katie Brennan has written a nice piece in direct response to Simkins’, which if I had to sum up in half a sentence, explores some of the positives to be found amongst the negatives:

 In no other profession would potential employees be treated this way, and perhaps the worst thing, is that we have learnt to accept it, that that’s just the way it goes in this industry, which makes me a little bit sad. We’re people at the end of the day, not just timestepping robots. I just like it when people are nice to each other…

…when [the industry] is glorious, it is wonderful glory UNBOUNDED. Seriously. There’s absolutely nothing like it. All those clichés about showbiz, the lights, the greasepaint, the applause, the comradery of castmates, the feeling of just standing on that stage and belting the shit out a brilliant, yielding money note- they’re all true on paper, but they FEEL even better.

I don’t have any pat answers: as I’ve indicated above, I think everybody has different triggers and anxieties, and their ways of dealing with their own mental health issues will be different. The key is finding the right support – nurturing friendships that last long after the curtain comes down, finding the people who will lift you up when you need it, and who you will walk over hot coals to help should the need ever arise.

And, of course, nor are the sort of pressures actors face unique to their industry. Short term, low paid, itinerant jobs are hardly the exclusive domain of the performer. Mental health issues, whether influenced by those pressures or others, need to be recognised better across all industries – but we can all of us start changing within the realms we work in.

Of course, no amount of talking about mental health will ever replace what the families, friends and our industry has lost in the people whose deaths have been reported over the last few weeks. But I’m beginning to see the start of conversations that will without doubt help others, and hopefully prevent similar headlines in future.

For information and advice, mental health charity MIND is a good place to start.


I’m indebted to Jon Slattery for inducing a bout of nostalgia in his mention of the 1950s board game, Scoop, which he found in a Camden charity shop.

My grandmother had the same game, and seeing Jon’s photos of the box and the “editor’s phone” – a quasi-random device that determined the outcome of your attempts to fill your front page. Pulling a handle back and forth would move a circular dial with a number of options, one of which would be the editor’s decision regarding your story. It had the sort of tactile, role-playing greatness that merely rolling a die could never achieve. The whole post brings back happy memories of playing the game, kneeled around the coffee table in the front room on many a wet and dreary Doncaster day.

On the subject of newspapers and telephones, I’ve been reading Phone Hacking: How the Guardian Broke the Story, an ebook from The Guardian for the Kindle (and Kindle apps on your iPhone or iPad, etc.). The newspaper doggedly pursued the story when others wouldn’t touch it – at one point in 2009, Rebekah Brooks (former News of the World editor and, until recently, CEO of News International’s UK operation) said:

It [the Guardian] is rushing out high volumes of coverage and repeating allegations by such sources as unnamed Met officers implying that ‘thousands’ of individuals were the object of illegal phone hacking, an assertion that is roundly contradicted by the Met assistant commissioner’s [John Yates’s] statement yesterday.

The Guardian coverage, we believe, has substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public.

Two years later, we found out that the Guardian’s coverage was spot on.

The ebook splits the developing story into a number of chronological chapters, each starting with a brief timeline before reprinting the news articles covering the unfolding story. It’s a good reminder of how the evidence against NI started piling up, until the possibility that murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been hacked up caused the story to blow up so spectacularly and the media who had previously ignored the issue.

True, the book is basically just repackaging articles which can be read for free on the Guardian’s website, but the linear format of a book makes for more pleasant reading than jumping from web page to web page. And you can read it on the tube…

The book is the first in a planned series of Guardian Shorts, topical ebooks which provide background for current news stories. By sidestepping the traditional print route, existing content can be repurposed – and charged for – cheaply (the phone hacking book costs just £2.29 for the Kindle, and will presumably be a similar price when it makes its way to Apple’s iBooks store). There’s also a speed issue: the paper can publish a book electronically months before a bound paperback can hit the shelves. In comparison, Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ own book on the saga won’t be published until autumn 2012.

The most annoying thing about the book is that it shows up just how awful the typographical defaults of Amazon’s Kindle iOS app are. I don’t know how much freedom Amazon’s implementation of the ePub format allows designers, but both this Kindle book and others I’ve purchased make me yearn for a well-designed page. Apple’s defaults within its iBooks reader do look nicer. Still, I’ve yet to find any ebook which is as well-designed, or comfortable to read, as a paperback that’s been typeset by someone who knows what they’re doing.

An Apprentice quick quiz: Who patronises the over 50s better?

In last night’s episode of The Apprentice, the two teams were asked to produce dummy magazines for an untapped market sector. One team – and look away now if you don’t want spoilers – suggested targeting the retired market with a magazine entitled Hip Replacement.

They lost. But not before being told by all and sundry that their approach to the market sector was demeaning and patronising.

And yet, what do I find inside my issue of The Guardian this morning? A supplement called Living Choices for the 50+. Which, if anything, makes Hip Replacement seem positively enlightened.

As a test, here are ten headlines. Five are from Hip Replacement, five from the insert that came with The Guardian. Can you tell which is which?

  1. Don’t forget the kids
  2. Health insurance: time to compare
  3. Taxing stuff
  4. Pension power
  5. Gas: comfort and safety
  6. Retirement enters a new age
  7. Don’t worry, be happy
  8. Ensure to insure
  9. Fit as a fiddle
  10. Age doesn’t come alone

Can you tell which is from the ‘patronising’, fictional Apprentice magazine, and which from the real-life supplement?

Answers below…

Continue reading “An Apprentice quick quiz: Who patronises the over 50s better?”

Big mouth strikes again

I’m quoted in a Guardian story about the continued success of The Lion King, which has taken over £34 million in box office revenues in its 11th year in the West End.

The only reason I got to quote was that the piece’s author, Maev Kennedy, happened to ring the Stage offices as this week’s issue was going to press, so our knowledgeable news team were all tied up. So Guardian readers were made party to my thoughts instead – both online from last night, and on page 3 of today’s print edition.

Scott Matthewman, of the Stage, said: “It looks as if a big family outing to a big West End show is not necessarily counted as discretionary spending, in the way that regular cinemagoers might cut back. The shows which generate repeat visits, and target a family audience – like The Lion King – are doing particularly well. The Lion King, with the might of Disney behind it, is also putting a lot into education outreach work, so if school children are going to pester to be taken to one London show, that’s going to be the one.”

I have no idea whether any of that is true. It’s just what came off the top of my head as the call came through. I might have had a better, more cogent theory if I’d actually seen The Lion King even once during its 11 year run. As it is, it’s yet another in an embarrassingly long list of West End stalwarts I have yet to see…

Caitlin, Gaga and paywalls

On Saturday, Times columnist Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) tweeted that:

I’m not being funny, but you really won’t ever read a better interview with Lady Gaga than mine

And it’s true. The interview in question is, quite frankly, one of the best pieces I’ve ever read. I said as much on Twitter and, according to the statistics provided by link-shortening service, my tweet contributed (at the last count) a paltry 113 clickthroughs to the total of 57,595 that have currently been recorded by that service.

By any measure 60,000 page impressions is a phenomenal amount of readership coming to the Times website that would not otherwise have done so. The actual number of links distributed from person to person is likely to have been even higher, as many Twitter and Facebook users use other third-party link shorteners or share the link in full.

Next month, of course, both the Times and its Sunday stablemate will go behind content paywalls. To view even one article on the website, you will have to pay either £1 for access to the whole site for 24 hours, or £2 for access for a week. For practical purposes that means that articles such as this will become much, much harder to gain any sort of traction in the wider field.

Continue reading “Caitlin, Gaga and paywalls”

Style guide wars: actress vs female actor

It’s such a shame when an injudicious choice of words overshadows the points that someone seeks to make. That’s what happened when, last week, The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman wrote an article for the paper’s G2 section about why Katherine Heigl would executive produce a film like The Ugly Truth after trashing Knocked Up, in which she starred opposte Seth Rogen, for being “a little sexist”.

The whole of Freeman’s piece makes some valid points — not that I agree with all of them. I liked The Proposal far more than she did, but I found myself nodding internally at this paragraph:

Hollywood romantic comedies have become the Primark dresses of cinema: disposable, crap and likely to make you wonder why you spent £10 on that piece of rubbish in the first place. It is tragically easy to see the thinking behind both Bullock and Heigl’s movies: “Hey! I’m a comic actress and I want a role that doesn’t involve me being a personality-free love interest, a shrewish wife/girlfriend, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a dumbbell. So why don’t we go back to the old school and make a Rock Hudson/Doris Day-type movie in which — and this is the real feminist kicker — I play the boss in the movie and he plays my subordinate. Amazing!” But no amount of sharp skirt suits can compensate for vibrating knickers.

But many of the comments attached to the article did not concentrate on the substantive points of Freeman’s article, but the headline. This is the part of the article which is least likely to have been written by Freeman herself, but would have been created by a subeditor. In this instance, it was given the headline

Even when they produce their own Hollywood romcoms, why do female actors still allow themselves to be humiliated?

Straight away, you can see the contentious element. Why “female actors” rather than “actresses”?

Freeman herself commented:

To all of you who are getting so exercised over the term “female actor”, take it up with the Guardian style guide.

…and later reiterated:

My goodness, the female actor / actress debate continues. As I say every flipping week it seems, take it up with the style guide. On the other hand, if that’s all most of you can think of to criticise here, my piece must be amazing.

And in Peter Preston’s media column in yesterday’s Observer he took up the cause:

Last week I was less than ecstatic about newspaper style books in general, and one in particular that saw a Hadley Freeman piece in the Guardian headlined: “The ugly truth about female actors in rom-coms”. Helen Mirren, female actor? Kindly leave the stage. And Hadley agrees with me. She’s blogged back to “all of you who are getting so exercised over the term” saying “take it up with the Guardian style guide”. Not with her, because she never wrote the two duff words; not with the sub-editor who wrote the headline and was merely following orders, but with the sacred book of ordained coinages.

Why do newspapers churning out hundreds of thousands of words a day – some of them as new as last night’s television or a blog from Tahiti – need to set living English in concrete blocks of disapproval?

Erm, let’s just look at the Guardian style guide, shall we? It’s easy to do, as it’s all online. Of the term ‘actor’, it says:


for both male and female actors; do not use actress except when in name of award, eg Oscar for best actress.

One 27-year-old actor contacted the Guardian to say “actress” has acquired a faintly pejorative tinge and she wants people to call her actor (except for her agent, who should call her often). As Whoopi Goldberg put it in an interview with the paper: “An actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor – I can play anything.”

As always, use common sense: a piece about the late film director Carlo Ponti was edited to say that in his early career he was “already a man with a good eye for pretty actors” … As the readers’ editor pointed out in the subsequent clarification: “This was one of those occasions when the word ‘actresses’ might have been used

I’ve added the emphasis to the start of the final paragraph. Good style guides recognise that there are situations where the “rules” are not hard and fast. I think that the clumsy structure of the headline to Freeman’s article is brought about by one instance where common sense was not applied. Indeed, note how the article itself describes Heigl both as an actor and an actress, depending on the context.

In Preston’s example of “Helen Mirren, female actor?”, “Helen Mirren, actor” would suffice. The style guide says that is preferable to “Helen Mirren, actress”, and I would agree. Preston seems to have a chip on his shoulder about style guides, and uses this example to justify his own prejudice. The error, though, is not in the guidance, but in the dogmatic following of such guidance without recourse to common sense.

On a related note, we recently had a flurry of letters over the same wording in a news story on The Stage, which was headlined Female actors get less pay and shorter careers.

This is a different case, though — as the headline implies (and the opening paragraphs confirm) there is a comparison to be made between female actors and their male counterparts in the same profession. If the term “actresses” had been used to change the headline to Actresses get less pay and shorter careers, that implication is lost and a longer, clumsier headline would have been needed.

When brevity isn’t everything: The Guardian vs Twitter

One of a number of articles in The Guardian about a Whitehall official’s template document advising on Twitter etiquette for government departments:

> West Bromwich East MP [Tom Watson] spoke out after a Whitehall official wrote a 20-page strategy paper for government departments on how to use the medium, which has a limit of 140 characters per message.
> Even its author, Neil Williams, the head of corporate digital channels at Lord Mandelson’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, admits the 5,382-word official “template” might be regarded as “a bit of over the top”.
> Boasting 36,215 characters and spaces, it would need roughly 259 separate “tweets” to be sent via Twitter.

How dreadful that a style and usage guide is long. Who could possibly conceive of such a thing?

Alan Travis and Haroon Siddique’s article is 1,179 words long. The current print edition of Guardian Style, the newspaper’s stylebook, is 362 pages in length.

Just saying.

Pussy problems, part 2

As well as writing up [the problems with Stuart Jeffries’ factually incorrect G2 article]( yesterday, I wrote to the letters page of the Guardian to complain.

They have chosen not to publish that letter, but instead have included some discussion of the matter in their regular [Corrections & Clarifications column](

> A G2 article called the censorship from Twitter of the hashtag (equivalent to a subject line) “Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy” the worst outrage against freedom of expression ever. We should have noted the explanation provided by Biz Stone, the founder of Twitter, for the problem users encountered searching for #MrsSlocombesPussy: a programming bug means that Twitter’s search function does not work on hashtagged words of more than 16 characters. MrsSlocombesPussy is 17 (The strange case of Mrs Slocombe’s vanishing pussy, 8 June, page 15).

Note the wording “We should have noted…”, which implies that mentioning Biz Stone’s comments in Jeffries’ column would have made everything alright. In truth, the whole premise of Jeffries’ piece is flawed, and consequently the whole piece ends up being a work of fiction. There was no intervention from Twitter, there is no censorship issue, and there never has been.

What’s more, currently [the article is _still_ online in its original form]( no mention is made of the correction. And links to the article are _still_ being cited on Twitter as an example of American prudery. _(see update 2 below)_

Hopefully that’s just an oversight, and Jeffries’ piece of nonsense will either be removed, or have a disclaimer placed on it that’s so large it makes it clear that the content can’t be trusted.

**Update:** The Guardian’s Kevin Anderson, [writing in today’s Technology section](, gets it right.

**Update 2:** As of 10.30am on Thursday, July 9, [Jeffries’ article]( is now headed by the correction.

Stuart Jeffries’ pussy problems

The Guardian: The strange case of Mrs Slocombe's vanishing pussy

Stuart Jeffries’ book about television nostalgia, [Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy](, is a great read. And so it’s really disappointing when he gets it so, so wrong.

After the sad passing of Mollie Sugden, best known for her role as Mrs. Slocombe in 1970s TV sitcom _Are You Being Served?_, a number of people paid tribute on Twitter by adding a ‘hashtag’ of `#mrsslocombespussy` to their tweets. For the non Twitter-literate, a hashtag is a word preceded by a # symbol that, when clicked on, leads to a set of search results of all the public tweets mentioning that word.

Except, in this case, it didn’t. Follow the hashtag for [#mrsslocombespussy]( and you see “No results found”. As soon as people found out, they were up in arms. Those pesky Americans! Don’t they get our ribald, if mildly offensive, innuendo-laden 1970s humour?

Jeffries himself wrote a piece for today’s Guardian, which appears in the ‘Shortcuts’ section of the G2 supplement. It’s also online with the same headline as in print: [The strange case of Mrs Slocomobe’s vanishing pussy](

> And then, suddenly, and totally unacceptably, the tweet-grieving, which had brought solace to so many, stopped. Click now on the hashtag now and Twitter replies, “No results.” …
> Twitter is run by Americans and those puritanical censors of British culture’s Rabelasian rudery don’t dig double entendres, especially when they relate to a woman’s genitals. As a result, they acted to silence the tweet-grieving.

Except, er, they didn’t. And it was pretty easy to find out why, to be honest. Only on Monday, a British newspaper had included in its media section a breakdown of what actually happened:

> But not everyone on Twitter got the joke, with bloggers immediately suspecting foul play. “An odd, vulgar hashtag has appeared [that] obviously doesn’t belong there and doesn’t lead to any actual Twitter conversations,” said a blogger on the social media site “Trending topics are a great way to find out what’s hot in the Twitterverse, but they’re also a haven for malicious hackers and spammers.”
> Yet when people tried to search for the topic #mrsslocombespussy on Twitter, it generated zero results, leading to suspicions that it had been censored or filtered out. Not so, said Twitter’s co-founder, Biz Stone, who blamed its disappearance on a bug. “We don’t filter out offensive content from search,” Stone told **”There’s a bug involving hashtagged words with more than 16 characters. If you search for the same word or phrase without the hashtag you would see it in results.”**
> So it was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. Which was somehow entirely appropriate – Mrs Slocombe’s pussy falling foul of a cock-up. They could write that into a new show.

(My emphasis). And indeed, he’s right: If you search for [MrsSlocombesPussy]( without the preceding hash symbol, all the results come up. Which, sadly, currently includes rather a lot of people complaining about censorship that doesn’t exist, as a result of being fired up by Stuart Jeffries’ inaccurate article.

If Jeffries — or his editor — had just read that piece including Stone’s comments, he could have been saved an awful lot of embarrassment. It shouldn’t have been too difficult: after all, Monday’s media piece appeared in — yes, you’ve guessed it — [the Guardian](

**Update: [Things have moved on — but not by much](**

**Update 2: [Another article from the Guardian](** — thankfully this one gets it right (by repeating Monday’s factually accurate version of events)

Great buildings, simple design principles

I’ve really been enjoying the Guardian’s latest freebie series, a series of posters extolling the virtues of some of the world’s [most iconic buildings]( As well as including original architectural blueprints, there are plenty of features about where each building’s design fits in to a greater scheme. For instance, today’s poster on Arnos Grove tube station makes reference to the 1938 tube train stock, the design of which was inspired by WS Graff-Baker’s [five principles of good design](

1. Will it work?
2. Is it as simple as possible?
3. Could it easily be maintained in service?
4. Can it be manufactured?
5. Does it look well?

If only all designers used these principles today, eh?