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Something strange at Theatre Royal – What the Dickens?

Posted on: 19th July, 2018

When you reach a certain age, the received wisdom is to try something new each year. So when I learnt that extras were being sought for filming in Bury St Edmunds under the directorship of Armando Iannucci, then I decided to give it a go. To cut the intro short, I jumped through all the hoops of profile and selfies and ended up being kitted out in full Victorian garb  at the home of Harry Potter himself – WB studios just outside Watford.


I was involved with two very long days (06.00 to 20.00!) of filming in stifling heat, firstly in the town when both Angel Hill and Chequer Square were miraculously transformed into the dirt and poverty strewn streets of London, with the entrance of the Athenaeum doubling for a theatre and secondly, more relevant to me as a Heritage tour guide, inside our theatre itself. In all there were nearly a hundred extras and near on that total of production staff. You can imagine why films cost so much!


So, to the takes actually in the theatre, which morphed magically and mysteriously back to the mid 19th century. It really was a sight with the remodelled foyer, very realistic gas lighting which gave a suitably apt dim and ethereal glow (ideal for every complexions, mine included) plus stage footlights. All the costumes were immaculate reproductions of that epoque and were it not for all the modern technology, you might have actually been there for real in 1860. We were also treated to scenes involving the hero himself, Dev Patel, including both the start and the end of the film; sorry, I omitted to mention that it will be ‘The personal life of David Copperfield‘. All the extras were moved around within the Pit and Circles to give the feel that the theatre was packed for a reading of Dickens himself. In one scene, when there was substantial drunken behaviour in the Upper Circle, a background rendition of ‘Black Eyed Susan‘ was evolving on the stage itself.


I’m really very glad that I pushed myself to get involved. I now much better understand the intricate workings behind film production, which I would describe as highly organised chaos. In addition, it was a literal fly in the Pit, able to hear all the comment and suggestions from the Director  and team who were the most friendly and approachable bunch you might wish to encounter. I can now, with true hand on heart, weave my experience into future tours around how the place functions today. I can even quote from a question raised by a much younger extra – to the effect that did I believe the film would be a faithful replication of David Copperfield?  I just needed to make allusion to who was actually playing the eponymous lead!


Above all, what a fillip for the the theatre and its staff to be the centre of such wonderful attention, all captured both on film a host of cameras and smartphones. And then, of course, there will be the undoubted privileged of watching the final production where, one hopes, full credit in terms of images and words, will be given to such a unique location.


Mike Dean

Theatre Royal Heritage Tour Guide (and now Part-Time Extra).

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