So I wasn’t entirely truthful labeling myself as one of the great unemployed – I have far too much of an odiously self-important social conscience for that. I do in fact normally forge an existence by undertaking numerous scrappy little jobs that come and go like Katie Price’s husbands – normally lingering just long enough to fill me with a quite delicious loathing of everything that they stand for. This week I am mostly unemployed… next week I’ll be sitting in a windowless basement in an joyless region of London’s east end with a earpiece screwed to my head cheerfully finding out how people rate their electricity provider on a scale of one to five.
Aaaah the joy of the call-centre. That merry respite of the actor. It doesn’t matter that the arts council has gone down the spout and that theatres are closing down nation-wide… who needs to tread the boards when we can spend all those years (and thousands of pounds) of training in faking a smile down a telephone line.
I’ve worked in countless call centres in London (there are a surprising number lurking down various dark alleys) and all of them are fully populated by frustrated out of work actors grimly hanging on to the remaining scraps of their self esteem. It fills me with joy to recount that my very first job – fresh faced and dewy eyed skipping away from my drama school graduation was in a factory like telephone market research complex on the wrong side of Old Street. There we all sat – quite literally hundreds of us – in our small chicken coups endless clucking away at the green print computer screens that time forgot trying to feign interest in to whether the person on the other end of the phone prefers Birdseye fishfingers or Sainsbury’s own.
I remember the small internal crumbling at the first fag break (a closely monitored fifteen minutes after two hours of being surgically attached to your terminal) when I made the discovery that far from being a exotic talent nestling among the ordinary folk to earn a wage – my two hundred fellow chicken coup co-habitors were in EXACTLY the same predicament. I learned to dread those snatched quarter hour breaks as much as the incessant ring tone of the headsets as it quickly became clear that they were an opportunity for the ego-obsessed luvvies to prove that they weren’t failing quite so badly as the next factory animal. If you were asked if you had anything coming up you could be sure it was because the chicken doing the asking was about to swept away by some mah-vellous opportunity that would send you back to your desk with your tail feathers very firmly between your legs and full of the overwhelming sense you were caught in some horrific groundhog day of perpetual failure.
“So where did you train?” I remember a particularly glassy voiced and startingly angular girl ask me one day,
“Erm.. Webber D – I’ve just left actually” I responded defensively.
“Oh really. RADA.” she proffered her school without any prompting, “I’ve always wondered why people bother going to the other drama schools. Everywhere else seemed like a waste of time to me.” I stifled the urge to rattle off a list of my own dear school’s glittering alumni knowing of course that she could always trump me and this wasn’t a battle of egos I could ever win.
The glorious Radanian – the spawn of that fine and infinitely pompous institution the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The Oxbridge of drama schools and the place that the lowly actors who did not walk its marbled corridors quickly learn to detest. Its graduates always seem to be slick with the sense of their own magnitude and are huge sufferers from a really rather severe sense of self importance that dwarfs anyone in their mighty step. They’ve always rather amused me really (when I’m not loathing them as yet another RADA-type beat me to the job I lusted after). As actors – we’re artists – of a sort – you certainly need the grit of a vocation-driven madman to persist in the industry – but also within the right job you genuinely do get an enormous sense of creative exhilaration and satisfaction. However we’re also selfish, self-obsessed and conceited buggers and never will we, through the might of our profession, save a life let alone the world. Try telling this to a Radanian. I’m sure they fully believe that they are among some chosen few that will revolutionise culture at a fundamental level. Their preciousness is at times hilarious and at times repugnant (depending normally on what side of the bed you’ve rolled out of that morning). They’re not all bad of course – occasionally you get the odd one that realises acting’s just a load of larking about – but that glassy voiced bitch puffing away on her fag outside the chicken factory in Old Street laid a prejudice deep in the heart of Maggie Adams that I silently and smugly enjoy.
Needless to say I didn’t last particularly long at that particular job. A few weeks in I’d taken to doing the Guardian Cryptic at the same time as listening to the eternal ring out of phones chirruping in empty homes the country over (the houses’ inhabitants blissfully unaware that I was desperate to question them in depth about fishfingers). One day I had a particularly greasy supervisor in charge of me and my oh so important call rate.
The supervisors were a wonderfully noxious race – actors too – but ones who had both been out of work so long and so lacked any type of spine that they had actually risen in the ranks of the factory to become the big fat cocks sitting at the end of each row. Now perhaps it was their inner self-loathing at the fact that they had allowed this to happen to themselves or perhaps it was a desperate grab at power over others to make up for how little they had over themselves – but these grotesquities were worse than the most dilligent and teacher worshipping prefect you’ve ever come across. They sharkily scoured the waters for anyone overstepping the fifteen minutes allotted for the break, miserly noting down every toilet break to make sure you weren’t pissing the calls away and pacing the aisles for anyone who might be making a tumble from total productivity. Of course my supervising cock hated me doing the crossword – and gave me warning after warning. I stubbornly persisted tartly replying every time that my calls were above average and it helped me to focus. On the third warning he snatched the crossword from my desk (and at this point I’d even gone to the bother of doing it impressively surreptitiously) screwed it up and told me they weren’t paying me to mess around. In all fairness, he probably had a point, but I was two clues off completion and my poor bruised sense of worth sternly asserted itself in a magnificent show of steely defense. I rose, slowly yet determinedly from my seat – a single towering head amongst the sea of busy poultry – and told my vainglorious critic that believe it or I was able to do two mindless activities at once and that if he had any sense of pride, or indeed survival he should take his bony overweening arse out of this godforsaken place and go and find a fucking life. I picked up my bag – snatched my crumpled crossword back and strode out with hundreds of chickens staring at me in disbelief. An exit I’d still be proud of if it wasn’t slightly tarnished by me pulling instead of pushing the heavy glass door causing my nose and forehead to crash into it with a dull thud.
The glory of this personal victory lasted a few days before I realised – shit I still have rent to pay – leading me to scour the notices for another call centre in need of silver voiced actors. And so the vicious cycle of my employment was born!