Life in the Background…

Downton Abbey series III

When I was at University, a colleague of mine asked me to put a string quartet together for the film    Blue Ice (1992).  I was the only one in that quartet that could actually play a string instrument, but we were miming so who was going to know right?  From that moment on, I was  pretty much hooked on this kind of work and decided to add it to the rather eclectic life as a freelance musician.

Actually one of the first jobs I did wasn’t music related at all but was for a typical tabloid magazine that you could read cover to cover whilst waiting for your dentist appointment. It was one of those cheap picture stories that must have been true. I figured that from thenceforth my career as an extra, or in fact, to use the politically correct term  a Supporting Artist, could only ascend! I took pretty much all sorts of jobs musical or non musical including teachers, policeman, scientists, hooligans and even dead bodies.  The latter was a pretty grim experience as we filmed the scene for Silent Witness in a real morgue in London. They basically covered me from head to toe in various shades of bruised blue to get the effect of death. In the scene I had to lie dead still (if you pardon the expression) on a white slab in a medical lecture hall in front of trainee doctors. I always dreaded this kind of job as I found it difficult not to laugh. Dead funny though.

Nikto in the Pod Hanger. Episode 1

Literally the day I got back from my violin studies in Prague, I got the call to be an alien in Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, Episode 1.  As you can imagine, it was a boyhood dream come true. Whatever I was going to be doing that week could quite frankly wait. I remember going to the costume fitting with three other guys and seeing row after row of incredible hand made masks and characters that we recognised form the original films.  We were like kids in a candy store. One of us spotted Greedo and we all made a bee-line like crazy children to try on Greedo’s head. “I wanna be Greedo… I wanna be Greedo!!”  The head just didn’t fit me and I was so disappointed. I mean, you would be too, right? I was allocated the mask of a new character, a Nikto (who were a reptilian humanoid species from the planet Kintan in the Si’Klaata Cluster, for all you nerds out there).

There’s a lot of hanging around on set so much time was spent along the large corridors of Leavesden Studios on roller skates that a friend had brought along.

Nikto before pod race, Episode 1, The Phantom Menace

The biggest memory for me on Star Wars was wondering around a packed canteen one afternoon for lunch and finding the last seat in the dining hall next to a girl who I spent the next 45 minutes or so chatting. I was still wearing my costume, but without alien mask and gloves, and she asked me which character I was playing in the film, to which I answered rather proudly “…a Nikto” Of course I politely returned the question to which she replied ” Queen Amidala….”

on the set of Bridget Jones.

I got the chance to spend a couple of weeks working on Bridget Jones’s Diary in 2000 as background in all the office scenes. These were filmed at Shepperton Studios in South West London. Meeting Renee Zellweger and making tea with her in polystyrene cups on set was fun. At the end of the shoot, I did managed to get this rather poor quality photo of us! Not my most flattering photo I have to say.

Here I am in action on Bridget Jones…

Spot the yellow shirt!

Most of the background work is for UK television serials but it is nice when you are asked to use your skills on film. When I was first asked to play violin on film, I was really excited as finally I could get the chance to show off what I’d spent years training to do. Thus when I was asked to play violin in the film An Ideal Husband (1999) and serenade Minnie Driver in one scene, I immediately told all my friends and family to look out for my big moment. When the film came out I couldn’t believe that my scene had ended up on the cutting room floor.

One opportunity came when they wanted a pianist to perform a Chopin Nocturne on the UK hospital drama series, Holby City. I went for an audition in London expecting to perform in some hall on a decent piano, but typically someone had brought into the studio a banged up old clavinova which wasn’t very touch sensitive. Not only did they want this Nocturne, but in this particular episode, the character in question, Maddy, had been stabbed so they wanted me to play her ghost.  I’d spent many a time in my childhood running around with a white sheet over my head, so I sure as hell could do a ghost. Just for info, the music is live, although in some scenes I had to mime to my own backing track, recorded on the same instrument.

The chance came again to play in the series Hotel Babylon, where production wanted a cheesy violinist to again serenade a couple in a restaurant scene. At last, I was going to get to perform live on screen! During the filming, I played the romantic section from Ziguernerweisen by Sarasate.  Once again to my horror, when it came out, they over dubbed me with someone else playing Meditation by Massenet. Don’t you just love show biz? Years of scales and Kreutzer studies only to be dubbed.

Moving away from music, there were some memorable jobs including being a photographer at the ice palace on Die Another Day (2002).  I played a live portrait on Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009), and I did some stand in work as a Death Eater stand-in on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2011).  Still haven’t seen any of the Harry Potter movies, or indeed read the books. Shocking I know for all ye hard core Potter fans! More recently, I did a few days on Sherlock Holmes II as a soldier…

Quartet on Poirot

Over the years I have got a few musical groups together and worked on Miss Marple, Desperate Romantics, Midsomer Murders, Poirot and Foyles War. 

I seemed to be getting more luck on piano when once again I was asked to put a piano and cello duo together for       Miss Marple. Originally we were asked to produce a slow waltz for a ball room scene and would we come up with an arrangement of the Grand Waltz Brilliante by Chopin for the duo.  I mean seriously, for cello and piano?! I’m pretty sure when I used to play this piece, that it wasn’t particularly “slow” and completely unsuitable for ball room dancing.  In the end we settled for an arrangement of  the Waltz from Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky. So here it is on Miss Marple.. You can just about see the back of my head.

Finally, here is a clip of some work I did as a naval officer in the BBC documentary film  “Hiroshima”.  It was supposed to be the USS Augusta, where president Truman received the news about the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima. This scene was filmed on the HMS Belfast stationed at Tower Bridge, London.

Downton Abbey III

Coming to a cinema near you….well… hopefully.


About Craig Stratton

Classical violinist (and sometimes pianist) Performs solo and chamber music in the UK and beyond. He has as appeared (usually as a blurred pixel in the background) on countless TV and film productions including Star Wars, Episode 1 and Bridget Jones. Plays also Banjo, Mandolin in the country folk band Pig Earth, who made their debut at Wembley Arena.
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4 Responses to Life in the Background…

  1. says:

    I have just come across this rather excellent blog. Bravo you! Very entertaining reading and there you were in my favourite Bridget Jones film which I have seen so many times and not looked hard enough at the man in the yellow shirt. Autographs will be sought. Keep going. Anne xxx

  2. lazypadawan says:

    Fun anecdotes!

  3. Pingback: Life In The Background «

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