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North East television extras hoping for a part in ITV's Beowulf epic

The stars of the 13-hour Beowulf epic have been named but who will provide the faces in the Anglo Saxon crowds?

Bessie Williams who runs casting agency NE14.TV
Bessie Williams who runs casting agency NE14.TV

Finally the stars of ITV’s epic Beowulf adaptation have been named but what of the ordinary Anglo Saxons in the crowd – or the ‘spear carriers’ as they call them in the theatre?

In her office behind an easy-to-miss blue door in Newcastle’s Ouseburn Valley, Bessie Williams is on the case.

Bessie runs a casting agency cleverly called NE14.TV and has lots of ‘extras’ on her books – although nowadays, she says, they call them supporting artists.

She has seen a lot of supporting artists during her 30 years in television, starting on Byker Grove as an art director, looking after props and suchlike, and then running a production company called Aladnlass.

“We won a couple of RTS (Royal Television Society) awards. After about eight years I set up a casting agency called Extraspecials.TV. Then I was given NE8Castings over a cup of coffee and I created NE14.TV.”

Bessie reels off the TV productions she has provided with non-speaking ‘talent’ – “Vera, The Dumping Ground, Harriet’s Army, Hebburn, The Paradise... and lots of commercials. We’ve done three Brown Ale adverts with a company in New York.”

She has over 3,000 people on her books, all amateurs keen to get in the frame, and recently a lot of the men have been growing beards.

Bessie says they believe this will get them a small part in the ambitious 13-hour production which is to be filmed in the region between now and October.

But she says she has been told to look for clean-shaven six-footers to play guards and also smaller chaps to play workers. Villagers of all ages and both genders might also have to be recruited.

First of all the potential Anglo Saxons will have to impress Bessie.

“What I’m going to when I’ve got a group together that look right is have an audition session for those who haven’t done this before.

“I’ll explain how to behave on a TV set – don’t stand at the front of the dinner queue, don’t look into the camera and keep your mobile phone off.

“I’ll say this could be quite a commitment. If you’re a villager you could be required four days in every month and it’s best if you can drive because the locations are Blyth and down near Consett.

“But I think it’ll be an amazing thing to be part of. They’re saying it could be a bit like Game of Thrones.”

Roly Lee, from Craster, who is hoping to land an extra's role in Beowulf
Roly Lee, from Craster, who is hoping to land an extra's role in Beowulf

Beowulf has been on the radar of the region’s keenest supporting artists for quite a long time, judging by some of the beards.

For some people, Bessie says, it can be quite a nice little earner but clearly there can be a good bit of hanging around in places where you might not normally choose to linger.

Several people have pointed out that, even in the summer, temperatures can be somewhat fresh in Weardale.

Roly Lee, who lives in Craster, Northumberland, says he got his first taste of a supporting artist’s life by accident.

It was back in 2003 when the drama series Distant Shores, which starred Samantha Bond and Peter Davison, was being filmed in the area.

“I was coming back from yoga one day when I bumped into a location manager who said, ‘Are you looking for the meeting about extras?’

“I wasn’t but I went along and ended up being cast as a fisherman in a black woolly hat.

“I’d served in the RAF for 39 years, until 2002, but I enjoyed being in the series.

“It still gets a lot of interest. The second series was never shown in the UK but it was shown in Australia and New Zealand and when I worked part-time in the tourism office we’d get them coming in, saying they were looking for this mystical island.”

Roly, who wouldn’t say no to a part as an Anglo Saxon villager, is one of the many hopefuls on Bessie’s books.

“I was the butler in The Paradise and I didn’t spill a drop,” he says proudly.

“I went for the part of a footman but when I went into costumes, the director looked round and said, ‘No, he’ll be the butler’.

“I also played a cricket umpire in a Bollywood movie made in Nottingham. I got to meet a lot of interesting people.”

Roly, with his memories of Distant Shores, believes Beowulf could do for Weardale what the hugely successful Game of Thrones has done for Northern Ireland.

“It could change the whole area and make it a big tourist attraction.”

Bessie agrees, suggesting it could bring a lot of visitors to places like Consett and Stanhope. “It’s great for the region, absolutely.”

ITV Studios' Beowulf set under construction at Eastgate in County Durham
ITV Studios' Beowulf set under construction at Eastgate in County Durham

First, though, the series has to be made and it’s a major undertaking, with a purpose-built set in a former cement works and quarry and a large cast headed by Hartlepool-born Kieran Bew (as Beowulf), American star William Hurt and Joanne Whalley, who recently played Katherine of Aragon in Wolf Hall.

Bessie says the final choice of which supporting artists get the nod will lie with the production team.

But when the series is finally aired, she won’t be the only North East television viewer spotting Anglo Saxons who seem vaguely familiar.


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