Imagine if, out of everywhere in the world, you ended up working at Pinewood Studios. Imagine if, against all the odds, you ended up playing an alien police officer in the most expensive TV series ever made. Imagine if you ended up working for Gerry Anderson.
It happened to me.
I was just a year or so out of drama school and, frankly, things weren't going too well when I got the phone call. This was an audition like no other. I was to go to the world famous Pinewood Studios to meet Gerry Anderson and audition for a regular part in his latest series, 'Space Police'. A regular part? Already I was gobsmacked. Since leaving drama school I had managed to win the odd line in various TV shows such as 'Pie In The Sky' and 'Love Hurts', but a regular part? There was plainly a lot riding on this.
I knew a lot about Gerry's work, of course, and had seen enough interviews with him to know what I was in for. At the audition he was softly spoken and careful to explain the premise. 'It's a cop show in space and you'd be playing an alien police officer. How would you feel about spending a year in prosthetic makeup?' Frankly, I would be happy enough to spend a year in work! As he passed me a picture of how my character might look, I came face to face with a very alien creature indeed. The audition done (and I can't imagine I did any better a job than anyone else they saw that day!), I headed home to await the news. And sure enough it came. But it wasn't quite what I was expecting.
'They want to see you at Pinewood again', my agent told me, 'To have a life cast done of your head'. Now this was interesting. Surely, as this was a costly and time-consuming process, they wouldn't be doing this to many actors? I was right. As I sat in a workshop in Pinewood, my head entombed in gloopy alginate and plaster of Paris, my suspicions were confirmed. 'You didn't hear this from me,' I was told, 'but you're on a shortlist of one'.
Just a few days later, and I had signed on the dotted line. I was to play Officer Orrin for all twenty four episodes of Gerry Anderson's latest series, 'Space Police'. As a life long science fiction fan, this was a dream come true. If you've never run up and down a spaceship corridor, blaster in hand, you haven't lived!
Of course, the masks took a little getting used to. They were hot and uncomfortable and our vision was severely restricted - I'm convinced that, in the earlier episodes, you can practically see the alien cast feeling their way around the set! We had to spark up a relationship with our animatronic operators pretty quick too. It was they who operated the remote controlled servos and motors in our eyes and faces that gave the aliens their expression. Before each scene, we would talk to them about how our character would react; 'I think Orrin would be surprised at this point, do you think you could raise the eyebrows a little?' At it's best the whole process worked wonderfully, and these inanimate lumps of rubber came to life before our eyes.
As the series progressed, it was given another name. It was discovered that there was a range of Lego toys called 'Space Police' and so, fearing confusion - or more likely, litigation - our show was renamed 'Space Precinct'. My role was generally to play the comic relief, which was always good fun. Officer Orrin was mostly partnered with Officer Romek and the two of us, rather like an intergalactic 'Laurel and Hardy', were always getting into scrapes and playing jokes on each other. My partner in preventing crime was played by actor Lou Hirsch, who hated his time on the show! He loathed the whole experience of being inside the mask and found it very uncomfortable. I was able to see beyond all that though. I was just amazed enough to be working at Pinewood with such legendary directors as John Glen (director of many a James Bond movie) and such famous names as Steven Berkoff, Maryam D'Abo and - believe it or not - Idris Elba! Idris played a very small role in our first episode (just as Ray Winstone played a small part in a later one) and of course, none of us knew just what a star he would later become.
I got on well with the cast. Despite his problems, Lou was a funny man to be around, and I already knew Simone Bendix (Officer Castle) as we had trained at Drama School together. I felt most sorry for the American cast, principally Ted Shackelford (Lieutenant Brogan) and Rob Youngblood (Officer Haldane). They had given up a life at home to fly half way round the world to film the series. I don't know which was the most confusing for them, performing with actors in rubber masks, or our British sense of humour!
I learned so much in my year on 'Space Precinct' and now, as the 20th anniversary of its first broadcast approaches, it's gratifying to see that there is a resurgence of interest in the series. I know it will never be the shining jewel in the Gerry Anderson crown, but many of the episodes stand up well today. 'Space Precinct' got great ratings on the fledgling broadcaster, Sky TV and, even when shown on BBC2 in 1995, managed to pull in three million viewers in the decidedly non-prime time slot of 6pm. I made many lifelong friends during that year, and look back fondly on a whole twelve months when I was, quite literally, living the dream!
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of 'Space Precinct's first broadcast, Richard James has written a book detailing his experiences on the show. Featuring contributions from cast members, candid photographs and missing scenes, 'Space Precinct - Unmasked' will be available from Amazon or www.gerryanderson.co.uk, priced £17.99, from October 3rd 2014.