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Confessions of a French Film Extra
The year's 1998 and Luc Besson's in town looking for peasants for his film, Joan of Arc. Naturally I apply. I already have the clothes. So, off I rush to the photo booth in town, concentrate hard on not blinking, think myself into the role of peasant number eleven ... and send the resulting picture off to the film company.
The next day I get a phone call. Did I want to be a noble? Naturally my first thought was that, at last, the Queen had recognised my services to small furry animals ... but no, even better, it was Luc Besson's casting director. They wanted me to be a knight. In full armour!
There is only ever one answer to a request like that - even when followed up with, 'it will mean a haircut.' Besides, my command of the French language is such that I translate only those words I want to hear – and all I could hear was 'dress up in armour' and 'Oscars.'
The haircut, however, was a shock. They only had two styles - The Henry V and the Friar Tuck. Both decidedly more cut than hair. And as a person whose ears hadn't been seen in public since the sixties, I had more to lose than most. Including my beard which went from wild and bushy to battle-hardened stubble.
Suddenly, I was Christo d'Ouilly, veteran of the Hundred Year's War. And I wasn't alone. Half the male population of the small town of Sées sported Henry V haircuts. For a month it looked as though the town had been overrun by escaped mental patients straight out of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.'
But wearing armour was brilliant. I was dressed from helmed head to pointy toe in shiny metal. And for make up, I had the option of scars or fleabites - because I was worth it.
Lunch, however, was a shock. I hadn't contemplated the mechanics of eating in full armour but as I lowered myself onto the refectory bench I discovered rule number one. 'Don't sit down without first grasping the hilt of your sword and angling it forward.' Otherwise, as I found out, the tip of your sword hits the floor and the pommel flies up and catches you under the chin.
And as for eating, I couldn't get the food from plate to mouth. My arm would lock with the food dangling some six inches in front of my mouth. Maybe the armour was ill fitting, maybe the articulation left something to be desired, maybe they had longer forks in those days. But I did solve the problem, somewhat inelegantly, by grasping the fork at its base and craning my neck forward in sudden food-crazed strikes. Christo d'Ouilly was not a man to be messed with.
As for the acting, the whole day was spent filming the coronation of the Dauphin in Sées Cathedral. The main actors were in the front pews; then came three rows of nobles in velvet and wimples; then us armour-clad, scarred and flea-bitten warriors; then a slide down the social scale to the throng of peasants - even more flea-bitten - at the back.
As Luc Besson told us - at nine o’clock the Dauphin will enter the cathedral and by seven he’ll reach the altar. No performance e nhancing drugs in the 1420s. Ten hours of filming then ended with three minutes of cheering the newly-crowned king as flower petals cascaded from ceiling galleries. And as the shouts of vive le roi began to die down, a single voice rang out from the host of armoured warriors - 'God save Henry the Sixth!'
Strangely that piece was cut.
And even stranger - and just as my hair was growing back - I was called back by the studio. They were looking for another noble - yes, I'm type cast - this time they saw me as an English noble at the capture and burning of Joan. Was I available?