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Teaching on a film set

If people shouting ‘Lights, camera, action!’ might sound like the kind of life you’d enjoy, then get used to this: most of working on a film set is sitting down organising things or waiting for something you have nothing to do with and no way of influencing to happen or finish happening before you can do the thing you came to do.

Like the Big Push in some eternal recreation of a First World War battle, it’s all organisation, the massing, the piles of food, boxes, cables, weird stuff you’ve never even dreamed of, tense little smiles from people you hardly know and soon may never see again and then….the waiting.

I’m teaching on a film set, Somewhere In England. To be as specific as the Call Sheet allows me to be, somewhere in East Anglia, the land George Orwell used to call Airstrip One, principally because in this part of the realm you can’t go more then ten miles in any direction before falling over yet another A-shaped set of concrete runways in a field, a few tumble down-huts and a ghostly control tower looming through the fog. A friend stayed in one overnight on a film job once. She said it was very, very busy and noisy, considering it was empty.

Our airfield set is a little more modern, one of the ones that was used throughout the Cold War. I got to the base on time and found our hut. Still painted in groovy Top Gun 1980s brown and beige US airforce chic, it was an ant's nest of rooms that now contained Make-Up, Canteen, Wardrobe, Lumpy Adolescent Part and an warren of spare rooms. I bagged a really nice one next to Makeup that may or may not turn out to be a mistake – it’s handy, but Makeup likes a chat. I suppose it’s the same as hairdressers asking if you went anywhere nice on your holidays and whether you need anything for the weekend.

I turned Al the green fluffy alligator out of his bag and put him on the sofa. On a bad day he’s my primary teaching aid. Then books: a book of Maths puzzles I can’t actually do, so we won’t be using that. Look, I designed a spreadsheet-based software app ok? So if I say these are hard sums, trust me.

More books: we’ve got some severely abridged Shakespeares that are so joyful they bring a tear to my eyes, which isn’t ideal when teaching a ten year-old. Maths times tables, which so far are an unexpected favourite. A grammar book we haven’t yet attempted (thanks, Poundland!), a dictionary in case, a Famous Five if we want to go retro and some other books I had in the car. Maybe Sheridan Le Fanu’ gothic supernatural tales aren’t quite right for this age group though, so we’ll read him over coffee on our own. Probably not in a room which doesn’t feel empty when it looks that way.

The big issue with teaching on set is the other stuff. Schedules are all very well, but they change and everything, but everything is subordinate to getting the shot. Obviously. If that means re-scheduling at ten minutes’ notice, then that’s what happens and your lesson plan flies bravely out along the cracked runway on its own.

But real life teaching is like that. Life changes. If you can’t do the in-depth literary analysis you’d thought you might enjoy yourself, tough. You have to make the most of the pupil’s strengths and the good thing, the great thing about teaching on set, for all its inconveniences, is that this is one-on-one tuition.

You find the pupil’s strengths and weaker areas pretty quickly without 29 other kids getting in the way. So today we didn’t do the rest of Twelfth Night, because the pupil was falling asleep. But being an actress she has the ability to memorise things easily, and sometimes, just sometimes, mindless memorisation is exactly what’s needed.

A quick round of the times tables and the points of the compass, a reminder that the top of a map is always North these days and a ten year old was confidently giving a heading of South South-West from one derelict airbase to another. As lifeskills go, I don’t think that’s too bad for a morning’s work.

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