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Paul Clayton: An actor must master the heat, the cold and toilets

Mark Rylance in the BBC's Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC/Giles Keyte Mark Rylance in the BBC's Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC/Giles Keyte
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Light a cigarette at a bus stop and the bus will come. Book a holiday and your agent will phone with a job. Film on a hot day and you’ll be wearing period costume.

As we hit what is laughingly termed as summer, these are the days of the historical epic. The Downtons, the Poldarks all take to the countryside during the summer. Pink unit arrows tied to lamp posts point to stately homes and scenic locales as Britain’s past is recreated for the camera. Last summer, those of us lucky enough to be involved in the television adaptation of Wolf Hall went on a veritable tour of National Trust properties. On hot days. Wearing an awful lot of Tudor clobber.

Everybody noticed the candlelit scenes (cue indignant letters to the Radio Times), even if they might not have seen what was going on in them, but no one commented on the beautiful sunlight bathing most of the action and making the actors hot and faint. The level of authenticity was such that I don’t think I’ve ever had as many layers of clothes between my penis and the outside world. Underpants (model’s own), tights (or rather, hose), pantaloons, brocade over tunic, velvet robe, heavy fur trim, and hat. All leading to a very sweaty artiste, who by mid-afternoon in Berkeley Castle was looking pallid, grey and on the point of collapse.

Any toilet trip took at least 20 minutes. Try navigating a castle toilet cubicle with a tudor broadsword strapped to your hip. Where is the Innovations catalogue featuring its handy ‘car toilet’ when you need it?

Anne Boleyn was executed in Dover in mid-July. Not historically, of course. A crowd of a 130 scantily dressed peasants were bussed in. Dover decided to have a three-day microwinter. The fur-clad lords were instantly happier, but by the end of the day, three peasants had been carried off wrapped in tinfoil suffering from hypothermia. Having once spent the day on a snow-covered Newcastle racecourse in a Primark suit, I know just how they felt.

Television budget cutbacks mean that free thermals for actors are often a thing of the past. By 11 o’clock I had nipples sticking out like chapel hat pegs. At least ‘Vera’ had somewhere to hang her coat.

So might it not be good practical advice, instead of hours spent on Meisner during training, to encourage young actors to browse through the odd thermal underwear catalogue?

Let’s help them to understand the advantages of an easily accessible gusset, and the value of light cotton underwear underneath any outfit pre-1960. I can particularly recommend the merino wool matching briefs and vest set from a well-known high-street retailer.

At least last summer’s Tudor sweat was authentic, and the set was happy, if moist. I think the saddest words that I’ve heard this year were while filming in a Belfast of -2°C: “Oh dear, I think we’re going to see a thermal top underneath that shirt.”

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