With acclaim rightly rich for It’s A Sin. Bethany Black tells us about her time working on the superb Cucumber and Banana for Russell T Davies.
I was sat on the edge of my bed. The last year and a half had been incredibly cruel to me. I was at my lowest ebb, and had just found out that I’d need to find £500 to declare bankruptcy. “If I had access to that I wouldn’t need to declare bankruptcy” I told the nice woman at the Citizen’s Advice. “Can’t you borrow it off someone?” she countered. “Sure,” I said “when they ask what I need it for I’ll just let them know it’s for a piece of paper that says I don’t have to pay them back.”
She wasn’t in the mood for joking.
When I put the phone down I saw I had three messages on Facebook. “You should go for this!” said the first one, with a link to a Tweet from Andy Pryor. It was an open casting. They were looking for a trans actor to play a role.
“Not doing that.” I thought to myself.
As a comedian you get sent open audition shout outs a lot from well meaning people, and mostly I’d ignored them. I’m a comedian. The next message had the same link with the picture of what they were looking for. “Looking for a trans woman actor 20-30, Mancunian accent, confident and loud. For a new TV series for Russell T Davies.”
“Definitely not doing that” I thought to myself. See, I’d grown up wanting to be an actor, and then at 16 I met performing arts students and that put me right off the whole endeavour. In my head though I’d always thought I could have been a world famous and well respected actor, had my A-level performing arts course not put me off. And it’s so much easier to continue to believe that to be the case when you do absolutely nothing whatsoever to test that hypothesis.
The third direct message had the same link in it. I’d normally go “nah” and then watch the show when it was on and go “I could have done better than that.”
Three people though. When three people tell you to do something, that’s got to mean something doesn’t it? That Tuesday afternoon I fired off the email and got one back almost immediately with a full script for Russell T Davies’ new show Banana. It was a companion piece to his upcoming drama Cucumber, and along with Tofu would be a trilogy that was like his bookend to his breakthrough series Queer As Folk.
Queer As Folk meant so much to me when I was coming out, and I’d been a Doctor Who nerd when I was a kid, so saying yes to the audition was high stakes for me. If I didn’t get the part, would I be able to watch the show? I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to get the part so it didn’t matter did it?
I spent the next day going through the audition scenes with my good friends Toby Hadoke, and his partner Cherylee Houston who plays Izzy on Coronation Street. I was ready for the audition the day after that.
On the day of the audition I was sat in the reception to Red Productions telling myself that I was absolutely not going to get the job so there was no point worrying. If I didn’t get it I’d be no worse off, so it wasn’t worth worrying about. When I got into the room Andy Pryor was sat there and I kind of wished I’d not checked out his IMdB page. I knew he cast Queer As Folk and Doctor Who, but seeing that he’d also done Trainspotting, Our Friends In The North, Cracker, Life On Mars and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet… well, his reputation was far more terrifying that the lovely man who was sat there.
In the years after I’d do some terrible auditions, (one for the TV series Devs went so badly I left without a single useable take), but this one? I had nothing to judge it against. Less than two days earlier I’d seen the open call and now here I was going back to my car that was parked over a mile away in the nearest free parking I could find. Whatever had happened it’d been fun to imagine what could have been.
It was the Saturday afternoon when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognise: “Hi, it’s Andy Pryor”.
My heart stopped. My head decided that he’d phoned me to tell me that my audition was so bad that he’d had words with everyone in the TV industry and told them never to hire me nor to reply to any of my emails. That was definitely what the phone call was. “You did a great job, look, we’re on a tight schedule, would you be available for a call back on Tuesday? The director and producer would love to see you.”
Of course I would! Why not have an extra step before the disappointment?
The next audition was great fun. Again, as I was leaving, I thought “well it was fun while it lasted. I’ve had a whole week now where I’ve got to pretend I’m going to be in the new RTD show! Ha! Who gets to do that?”
I was even more surprised the next afternoon when I got a phone call off Andy Pryor again offering me the job and explaining how television acting pay works. I worked out on the calculator how much I was going to earn whilst I was on the phone. When I put the phone down I showed my partner a number. “What’s that?” she asked “That’s how much I’m going to earn!” I said. I was wrong, I’d massively under calculated, but I’d find that out much later. “They want me to go in tomorrow for a read through” I told her. “I’m a professional actor now.”
From this point on I didn’t need to worry about parking as they sent a cab for me and as it pulled up outside the offices Andy was making his way in. He was now a friendly face and put me totally at ease. “Hi, listen, I know people get nervous at readthroughs but honestly, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Until that moment it had never struck me that anyone would find this to be a worry, I mean, I’d been a professional stand-up comedian for a decade by this point, I’d never had a script, or someone else to rely on to prompt me, this would be dead easy.
“Is there anything you need to know?” Andy asked “No,” I said, “I’ve seen enough Doctor Who Confidential to know what happens at Russell’s read throughs”
“You’re a Doctor Who fan? I cast that!” Andy said “Really?” I asked, knowing full well that he did. “Yes! Would you like to be in it some time?” he asked me. “Yes please!” I said and he said he’d keep me in mind.
“First day as an actor, and it’s all going well so far. This is dead easy.” I thought.
The day didn’t get any less surreal as we entered the offices and Russell came bounding out of his office towards me “Here she is! Bethany Black!”
He just seemed to be getting taller and taller. By the time he was the height I thought he’d be he still had at least three paces to go to be level. People don’t talk about it a lot, but Russell T Davies is hella tall.
He gave me a big hug and the rest of the world vanished and he smelled like dreams. “Big fan of your work” he said, and I thought, “oh, he’s prompting me.” Fortunately, the other part of my brain that was looking out for me piped up with ‘no, you idiot, he’s paying you a compliment. Say thank you.’ And I did.
The read through was great fun.
I sat there in a room with several people who would go on to become hugely famous. Letitia Wright (Shuri from Black Panther) was sat to my right, she was playing Scotty in the show. To my left was Hannah John-Kamen (Ghost from Ant-Man & The Wasp) who was playing Violet. Of all the things that day I was most impressed with the buffet table at the far end of the room “What, we can have anything from this? For free?” I said to someone who I assume was an exec at the production company because I never saw them during filming. I filled myself up with M&S sandwiches and chocolate Rice Krispie cakes.
After my comedy gig that night I was on my way back to the car when my phone pinged “Hi Bethany, it’s Russell from the read through, I just wanted to say you did a marvellous job, loads of actors seize up at those but you knocked all our socks off!”
I liked that he cleared up who he was like I didn’t know. I absolutely lost it in the car there and then. One of my heroes knew who I was.
They started shooting the next day but my first day for my episode wouldn’t be until the following week, and because I’d never acted before I got two days of intensive acting training with Ian Smith. He’s founder of the Television Workshop in Nottingham, well known to aspiring actors of my age as the people behind the anarchic 80s kids show Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It.
Filming was something else. Walking on to set on that first day, being the focus of the whole thing, working alongside Andy Knott who I’d seen in The History Boys and many many other things was surreal. I wasn’t an actor! I was barely a comedian I thought at the time.
Back in my trailer (at the time that sounded preposterous, me?! With a trailer?!) at the end of the day I sat putting my own clothes back on and panicking. Was I terrible? Was I ruining the whole thing? Was I about to get a phone call and be told that I was sacked? Right now I was too exhausted and elated to think too much about it. I went home. I did my washing up. I made my dinner. My phone buzzed.
I looked at the text it was from Russell, “Darling! Just watched today’s rushes, normally I’d be giving you notes, but you were PERFECT! Hooray! Keep being magnificent!”
I’d done it!
It was two days later when Emily the producer came over to me and said “Are you enjoying this?” “Yes, this is the best moment of my life!” I shot back as she chuckled, “Well, Russell’s asked if you wouldn’t mind being in the last four episodes of Cucumber as a regular cast member?”
I snapped her arm off. The show (pictured) was groundbreaking, had heart and got rave reviews. My episode of Banana seemed to manage the impossible and didn’t receive any backlash.
I’d gone from nearly giving up on my career entirely to being the first trans actor in a leading role in a British TV series – written by one of my absolute heroes – in under a fortnight. A show that changed hundreds of lives for the better.
Even if I did nothing else in my career, that would be enough.
You can find more from Bethany Black, including details of her Twitch streams, here.
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