Ever wondered where the inspiration for new plays comes from? Actor and scriptwriter Russell Bentley‘s marks his stage writing debut in 2016 with sla, a dark comedy about sex and love addiction which was written and conceived in the basement of the office where he temped. “Any actor who has worked in a crummy temping job can relate,” says Russell. Here, he recounts the experience and how it has inspired him….
Until recently, I was working in the basement of an advertising agency. Oh how the mighty have fallen; I was once a budding freelance copywriter for the company’s thriving ‘verbal identity’ team, having blagged my way in with no experience, just when the BBC had bought one of my TV comedy scripts. I was, as an American agent once described, “packing some heat”.’
However, no sooner had I got my skinny jeans under the table before the team was disbanded. I was promptly relegated from writing slogans for German cars and Uzbekistani mobile phone companies to a dank basement where I engaged in postal room duties. This involved the unglamorous task of franking letters, delivering paper back upstairs and opening the door to couriers. I had become a riches-to-rags story overnight, peppered further by the BBC’s decision not to make my script. I was no longer ‘packing heat’ – instead, I was ‘phased out’, to quote the same fickle American agent.
I was no longer ‘packing heat’ – instead, I was ‘phased out’
In this dungeon of hell, the levels of health and safety were called into question daily, and I was praying that mild asbestos poisoning from the barely concealed pipes meant I could sue the company and make my millions (although the poisoning might limit my enjoyment of being able to spend it). But the only thing visibly displayed was my contempt and disdain for the job.
My sole friends at work were the vermin (actual not literal), who scurried around the cramped space. I was like the boy in the 1972 film Ben, who befriended a mouse. I could relate: the furry beings listened to my daily actoral gripes with a sympathetic twitching of their noses. My friends just rolled their eyes when I complained about my career.
“The thing is,” I would tell my new furry friend, also now called Ben, after the film obviously, “I was perfect for the role, the bastard director just didn’t think so. Now, tell me, Ben, and be honest, what do you think of my latest headshots?”
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – except I was suffering a slow death from eternal boredom and the chemicals omitted from the pipes in the basement.
My boss in the post room was a 75-year-old ex-boxer named Gary (name changed to save his anonymity and my safety as he may have been old but he was an ox of a man so he could still hunt me down, like Liam Neeson in those awful films). Gary wore bermuda shorts all year round (unlike Liam Neeson in those awful films), put money on the horses, and had a wife AND a girlfriend, who would phone the post room at different times throughout the day. So you never knew who was who, and I wasn’t about to ask.
He was ‘old school’, which really meant that what he said was the gospel, and you couldn’t pursue any line of reasoning or question his authority. It was his way or the High Street, where I could often be found picking him up a ‘steak bake’ from Gregg’s or a copy of The Daily Smut.
I was, in essence, Gary’s personal gofer and on occasion internet guru. As a technophobe myself, that was saying something. I did, however, assist him in booking online cruises and package holidays for himself and his wife. I later found out that, on one particular holiday, he took his wife and mistress on the same trip to Portugal. The girlfriend stayed two rooms away in the ‘Granita Inn’, and Gary made detours there when his wife was sleeping or sunbathing by the pool. ‘Carry on up the Algarve’ I hear you cry, and it clearly was.
Brian had trained at the RADA, but was currently far more concerned about my lack of commitment to the job.
“Listen, son,” Gary would bark at me, if I proffered up an opinion about the slightly insalubrious nature of his moral actions. “What goes on in the post room stays in the post room. Oh, and I need this letter posted to Australia. Quick as you can.” Gary eventually left after 25 years in the post room, citing nose bleeds. But, if you ask me, it was really a perfect way to get voluntary redundancy and head off to Portugal in the summer and Margate in the winter.
Gary’s successor was a one-time actor, Brian (also an alias, but unlike his predecessor this one wasn’t strong as an ox, he was just a twat). Brian had trained at the RADA, but was currently far more concerned about my lack of commitment to the job.
Three years in the basement and even I, an actor of great depth and charm (my own words of course written in my biog for Dangerous Corner at the Theatre Royal Bath in 1998) couldn’t mask my deep disdain and hatred for all things postal and underground. I had now taken to befriending a ball called Wilson, like Tom Hanks in Castaway, and my madness was turning me into a depressed cauliflower, shouting at couriers and weeping into my packed lunch of wilting salad.
“When a courier arrives, you need to spring into action.” Brian would mutter. Not so much mutter actually, as reclaim and rejoice as though his new role as ‘Office Manager’ depended on it. “And why don’t you write their names down in the book? I think you do it deliberately.” He topped it off with: “Your problem is, you think you are above us”. Well, no, I was technically and geographically below. I didn’t point this out, though; that would have made me sound facetious.
Brian continued his line of police-like investigation, channeling the detectives in the police dramas he had dreamt of playing. “You were once a valued member of this team (that can’t be right, I wasn’t), but I really think you need to think about your priorities. This is still a place of work. And I’ve heard you’ve been on the phone to your agent for up to three hours, on company time.”
I would have loved to have spoken to my agent for three minutes, let alone three hours
I would have loved to have spoken to her for three minutes, let alone three hours, but by this time, the Chinese whispers were heading towards Mongolia. I deposited my Pret hot chocolate in the post room recyclable bin (if you can call it that) and headed purposefully for the exit like a prisoner of war released from his shackles. Brian’s feeble voice called after me: “I’m calling Human Resources if you walk out.”
Fate is a funny thing because, the following week, the play I actually wrote in the basement was commissioned and is being produced in London early next year. They say every cloud has a silver lining, even if this one was tainted with asbestos.
I look back at my time in the basement with a mixture of humour, disdain and anger at the bureaucratic pettiness of the corporate nonsense and small-mindedness. But I do have fond flashbacks of Gary in his Bermuda shorts and his off-key singing of the politically incorrect lyrics of “Melting Pot”. Old school, indeed.