Features: Interview with Phil Lowe – Supporting Artist –
Kitchen hand – “Nathanial”
In May 2006 Phil Lowe kindly agreed to answer some questions about his time working as regular supporting artist “Nathanial”. We are grateful to him for sharing his time with us.
How did you come to be an extra on Crossroads 2001?
Through an extras agency called Celex Casting in the East Midlands who also cast extras for programmes like Peak Practice at the time. I had previously had a lot of acting experience and studied as a mature student at Nottingham Trent Uni on a performance art degree course. When I left Uni I was struggling to find proper professional acting work and originally joined another agency in Nottingham called Denman’s Casting. I started to get bits of work on film sets and TV programmes as an extra but it wasn’t enough to earn a living, just an occasional days work here and there, maybe three days a year if lucky.
Despite the rarity value in terms of a regular income it was good experience.
Some years later as I had built a reputation of professionalism and reliability I joined two other agencies including the one that won the Crossroads jobs. I couldn’t believe my luck when they rang me and said they wanted me to be a very regular extra on the programme. Through that work I was also delighted to be able to get my Equity card.
What exactly does the role of "extra" involve?
Now there’s a question. Early morning rises, sometimes travelling a fair distance to the job, lots of patience and a love of reading or chatting, as most of the time you will be sitting in an extras bus waiting for your time to enhance the scenes with your magnetic presence. On the whole the extras are nearly always treated with respect (in my experience) and should be ready to react to a scene quickly and professionally. You very rarely get anything to say on set (like lines) and the agency will have let you know what type of character you are likely to be playing and any special clothes you may need to take with you. Whilst the main actors are on the scene with you they are not there to be stared at or idly conversed with i.e. “Oooooh, my Auntie Barbara thinks you were great in Emmerdale, can she have your autograph?” They are there to do a job, like you. However when you are working regularly on a show like Crossroads you do build up working friendships with a few of the friendlier actors, technical staff, floor managers and runners.
The ‘extras’ work would vary a lot. Sometimes you would be asked to simply walk from A to B at a given signal to give the space behind the main actors a certain degree of business or actively. Conversely, there could be often unexpected moments where you actually got to act properly and become a real part of the scene. That was exciting.
What was a typical day like for you?
The nice thing about Crossroads was that there wasn’t really a typical day but an average day filming in the Crossroads kitchens would involve a lot of reacting subtly to things going on around one. The tempestuous chef Billy played by Gilly Gilchrist would often be the focus of the action with him bullying the young staff under him, particularly Des and Minty the inept comic duo, and with his character trying to get away with his gambling and womanising whilst running a busy kitchen. As time went on myself and some of the other regular extras were treated like members of the Crossroads family and were given some great opportunities to feel much more involved than the average extra does. This was the same I think for my extras friends, John, Duncan, Tracey and Marlowe, who appeared regularly on the Crossroads reception and the hotel bar.
Some days you could spend literally hours sitting in the extras room waiting for the call to go through to the TV studios and do your bit. We saw a lot of breakfast TV and game shows on the telly provided. In waiting for the work you really did have to be patient as there were often delays. The best days in the kitchens were when we did several episodes in one day or over two days and you got paid a lot more for that. It also gave the extras a lot of variety in what they were doing which in any job makes for an interesting day. Whilst hanging around for the work to begin other extras would turn up to shoot other scenes in different parts of the hotel sets (the main hotel, the Russell’s apartments and the KO café) or to be bussed out to a location to film other scenes.
As our little group of six kitchen extras were seen so much when the series started to be broadcast on the telly we would become mini stars ourselves. Joke. We had the most famous elbows or backs of heads in soap land! These were often the bits of you that got seen on telly so you really had to act with both elbows as there was no way of knowing how the camera people were seeing the shot governed by the director and teams of lighting and sound technicians. My friend Felicity was used a lot because she was petite and the camera started on her slaving away in the kitchen and then panned upwards to the main action. I also got used a fair amount due to my characterful face and goatee beard and the fact I was older than the other young cast members. The kitchen outfits did nobody any favours with there harlequin colours schemes.
Do you have any amusing stories of your time on the show?
The funniest incidents were when we extras would be part of a scene in the kitchens and practical things wouldn’t go right like the fried eggs kept exploding on the industrial grill because it was so hot and the actors kept getting splattered with hot fat and leaping backwards during the filming. Pete Dalton who played Minty was always playing silly tricks with the actors and extras and we had competitions to see who could make the best food monster from bits of scabby vegetables floating in the large industrial sinks. We were supposed to be pretending to scrub vegetables or preparing dishes for the Crossroads restaurant in those sinks and mostly they were in actuality swamps of smelly water with old veg peelings in. This didn’t matter as the camera would zoom past tracking the antics of the main cast. As far as the TV viewer was concerned it was seen as being like a very busy professional hotel kitchen and we extras were doing exactly our role – filling in the background authentically and acting with our backs to camera. Sometimes we had to dash to the fridge or another unseen part of the kitchen layout at a very precise moment in time and that could be exciting in itself discipline-wise.
The worst place to film was in the staff restroom set as it was in a tiny space dominated by a pool table and it got very hot and stuffy with all the lighting equipment, cameras and people when filming. Here, it seemed that the scenes were the ones that had to be shot over and over again and it could become very tedious. One scene shot in there however was very funny and that was when the cast and a bunch of extras all dressed up in outlandish costumes for the ‘staff’ Christmas party and we did the Conga dance and we danced around with no music in the background! Quite bizarre and I looked a complete fool with my beard, dressed up and fully made up as a pantomime dame. The music incidentally was always added in later on during editing. We continued the scene later that afternoon in the main Crossroads lobby dancing in a jolly line holding each other around the waist past the bar to the bemusement of the pretend guests and Crossroads management, including the characters Jake, Virginia, Doris and the Russell family.
Another time we spent two days in an actual pub filming a stag night for one of the Crossroads staff and all the men were kitted out in rubberised bald caps supposedly taking the micky out of the porter Rocky played by Roger Sloman. By the time we had finished the shoot the caps were very sweaty and smelly and sticky and then we had to return the next morning to film again and you really didn’t want to put these things on your head.
We also got to spend a day filming at the local Nottingham dog track where we all acted watching invisible greyhounds rush around the track. Again the actual dogs were filmed later when the track was open to the public and the ‘action’ was slotted into our filmed pieces.
When we went out on location there was often a catering unit and a lot of the extras and cast loved this as the food was invariably of a very high standard and is free. This made up for all the hours sitting in a cold double decker bus.
You spent most (if not all) of your time in the kitchen - but what else do you think was happening in Nathaniel's life?
Oh probably constant wild parties. Also, watching paint dry and butterfly collecting where his two main hobbies, oh and driving his friends crazy with (must watch) re-runs of Crossroads episodes twice a day, that’s all. He now counts his friends as a spider that lives by the front door of his pokey flat and, with a barley disguised hint of jealousy, the postman extra he often sees on Eastenders. Oh how sad and cruel the world of showbiz can be. Poor Nathaniel.
What other productions might we have seen you in - on TV or on stage?
I have been in various TV productions as an extra; all sorts of background roles in Peak Practice (once played a limestone rock at Matlock – only kidding) and was in Boon and a film about John Lennon made for the US television and I was a monk for a day filming for the Open University (you get these roles when you are balding) and I still do very good amateur theatre in Nottingham, usually a couple of plays a year. Last year I took up an opportunity to work with the National theatre touring production of An Inspector Calls and that was a great learning experience. Of late I played the judge Danforth in The Crucible, Alan Felix in Play it Again Sam, Levin in Anna Karenina and a small role in The Diary of Anne Frank. The others were all leads.
Did the main cast spend time with you and the other extras between filming?
Not really, except through brief chats in the dressing rooms and at lunch time in the Lenton Lane Carlton TV studios canteen and then it was mostly a case of the extras in one area and the main cast in another. Some of the younger extras went to a few cast parties and I got invited to one celebrating a year of Crossroads being on the telly, which was fun.
We would see other ‘stars’ like Les Dennis arrive to film things like Family Fortunes as well, as the studios were used for a variety of productions, not just Crossroads.
Amongst the main actors there were people who stood out as folk who would take the opportunity to be friendly/friendlier towards the guys and gals who were employed to be extras. Not exclusively and in no particular order I remember Tony Adams (Adam Chance), Colin Wells (Jake the Snake), Sherrie Hewson (Virginia), Roger Sloman (Rocky), Kathy Staff (Doris Luke), Neil Granger (Phil Berry), Rebecca Hazlewood (Beena), Pete Dalton (Minty), Mark Jordan (Des),Rebbeca Clarke (Joanna Gibson) and Gilly Gilchrist (Billy Taylor). I also remember with fondness the very warm and friendly person who the advised on the food preparations in the kitchens, the professional chef John. It was a constantly evolving cast and so if I have missed anybody like the lovely Natasha who played Mandy, I’m sorry.
You were on the show for 18 months - did you notice a change in atmosphere - once criticism (from the fans and press) started to be directed towards the show?
I think the cast were happy to be in work and would work with the material at hand i.e. their roles in the soap. Most jobbing actors and their agents always have an eye out for other opportunities to earn a living and keep a decent roof over their heads. It is a tough world in which to find employment. So, in regards to criticism (implying something bad or poorer than before) you either react to it badly or seek a positive slant and promote the good aspects of the project they are currently working on, in this case Crossroads 2001. I would imagine that working on a main role in a soap as an actor one would be paid very well and an expectation would be had from the production team that you support the work professionally and publicly while you are employed on it.
Nathaniel was not asked to return to kitchen duties for the "glam" version of 2003. Do you think Billy poached him?
Poached or par boiled with a hint of basil? Lol
Most likely, because Billy did have a soft side and shared Nathaniel’s love of butterflies too and they would love to gamble on the length of time the paint would dry in, down to the very last second with Billy winning all the time. Curse him! It was a tough and exacting life in the kitchens and the habits spread into personal lives for the characters too and Nathaniel wasn’t good looking enough for the casting bodies of Crossroads 2003, the swines. Am I getting too surreal now?
Do you keep in touch with any of your former cast members?
Pete Dalton who played Minty I see occasionally through my present job out of showbiz and I speak to Jack Curtis who played the similarly named Daniel Curtis as he lives near me. Other than that, no. I am not doing any ‘extras’ work anymore so I don’t get to see other buddies who previously worked in that world.
Looking back it was great fun to work with the Crossroads 2001 teams and have had some great memories of that environment working in TV and experiencing all the technical work that happens behind the cameras as well as being privileged to be employed to be in front as an extra. Oh and I got a line once in an episode.
Billy: Goodnight Nathaniel.
Nathaniel: Goodnight chef, see you tomorrow.
(cue: Crossroads theme tune: Dang- dang dang dang dang, dang dang dang dang).
On that fine note I will say thanks for the chance to relive my Crossroads days through your excellent website.
PS: They originally wanted to call me Rupert. Gilly changed the name as he thought it suited me better.
Our heart-felt thanks go to Phil Lowe for giving us this interview.
The text here is © Crossroads 2001 and Phil Lowe
Images are © Phil Lowe
The photographs below are © Phil Lowe and
Are used with permission.
You can visit Phil’s Blog HERE