The Silent Shadows

Chinese, Indians, Africans… they all join the silent shadows

Content note: outdated language.

TVTimes masthead
From the TVTimes for week commencing 29 November 1959

A TELEVISION studio is the crossroads of the world — a meeting point of people from every nation. Here, for instance, Chinese, Indians and Africans meet to life and movement to the sets of Skyport and Knight Errant ’59.

They have no lines to speak, these silent part-time actors.

They earn the £3-a-day fee by merely hovering in the background or pacing unobtrusively across the set, giving the show the all-important stamp of a authenticity.

The task of finding them falls to Jose Scott, assistant to Margaret Morris, who is head of Granada’s casting department in Manchester.

Said Jose: “Some of the people I find are professionals, but many are part-timers specially engaged at short notice. I get them through an agent or our contacts in various schools and colleges.

Two women sit reading
Secretarial trainees Clarice Boyle (left) and Marjorie During playing Skyport travellers

“There are plenty of professionals available who have the facial characteristics of Europeans and most other whit-skinned foreigners.

“But when we need coloured people we run into difficulty in the North, because normally we can get hold of only a handful. Recently we needed 30 coloured men and women for a play. In desperation I rang Manchester University and asked them to put up a notice saying that any interested students should contact us.

“We didn’t have to wait long. Soon the phone was ringing — and it went on ringing and ringing and ringing. We had more than needed in the end.

“When we met them in the reception lounge, we found some of the men who had promised to come had brought their wives, too. And a woman who could not turn up at the last moment sent along her next-door neighbour.

“Although they speak English, many have a strong accent which we had difficulty in understanding and caused chaos when it came to getting their names correct.

“And when we asked them to write down their names, we couldn’t read their handwriting. But we got it sorted out eventually.”

Researchers for Granada’s People And Places magazine programme often provide leads to foreigners available for walk-on parts “And,” Jose told me, “once someone has made an appearance, he usually says ‘I have a friend who would be able to help…’ So the whole business works on a sort of snowball principle.

We have never been asked to find a Japanese, an Eskimo or a dwarf, but I’m sure we could. In the case of an Eskimo, we probably use a person with similar features, then dress them up. It’s amazing what a few clothes will do.”

Talking of clothes reminded Jose of an incident during rehearsals for a play. A group of Indians wearing saris were told the producer to turn up the next day in their “everyday” clothes.

So the next day they left their best saris at home and arrived on the set in their week-day saris! They didn’t that they were meant to wear Western dress.

At the studios, everybody speaks highly of the co-operation and friendliness of future doctors, lawyers, secretaries, teachers and engineers.

Said Jose: “The students are able to get a couple of days off without much difficulty, and they are always glad to do this sort of work. They have a reputation for being conscientious and hardworking.”

Two men
Students Akitoye Akiwumi (left) and Ali Mazrui

Akitoye Akiwumi, 24-year-old engineering student from Sierra Leone and Ali Mazrui, who has come from Kenya to study philosophy and politics, both appeared in a Granada play.

Said Akitoye: “We spent three days at the studio and found it very interesting to see things from the other side of the camera.” Ali told me: “I have done radio broadcasts in Mombasa, but this was he first time I had been inside a TV studio, a thrilling experience.”

Clarice Boyle, who is 25, and 22-year-old Marjorie During, both from Sierra Leone, got time off from their secretarial studies to become Skyport “travellers.”

A woman and a man
Ah Sing and her husband met relatives on the set

When Jose was asked to find a Chinese family for Skyport, she called on a Chinese couple who run a Manchester restaurant, Maw Man and his wife Ah Sing. But their children, Ken, 13, and Linda, 12, were not able to appear because of restrictions concerning the employment of child actors. So Jose asked a London agency for two Chinese children.

When Ah Sing and her husband met the children from London in the studio, they discovered they were their niece and nephew — children of Maw’s elder brother.

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