My Acting Life

by Peter Coomber

Preface

Another one from 'This Never Happened Too'. Another talking animal - I must have some sort of obsession...

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I always wanted to be an actress, ever since I was young. I know kids play-act a lot of the time - it's natural for them to do that - but for me, I knew I wasn't just play-acting on the playground. I would look at my reflection in pool of water, formed after a thunderstorm, and know that I wanted to be up there - on stage, on screen, being seen and admired by hundreds - no, thousands - of adoring fans. I wanted fame; wealth; romantic attachments with the lead actor.

I tried to encourage others to act - so that I had someone to act with, but it's difficult to find like-minded souls on the Serengeti; most of the other gazelles just wanted to eat grass.

"Imagine you are a tree; growing, stretching upwards towards the sun," I'd say. "Mum," my little sister, June, would shout, "our Sara's talking to an acacia again!" "Sara, dear," my mum would say, "come over here with the rest of the herd and eat the grass. It's tasty and is good for you." "She's not a deer!" my father would shake his horns and grunt. "She's a Thomson's gazelle."

I did have a little success when I managed to put on a play - Romeo and Juliet. I thought I'd played my part well, but the herd didn't show much interest. It didn't help that the other part was played by Peter the warthog - a somewhat ugly Romeo - who slobbered, and mumbled his lines through his tusk-filled mouth.

I persisted; I tried to get my parents' approval. "No," said my father. "You're a herbivore; not a thespian. You were made to eat grass; not prance about on the stage." He looked at my mother: "She wouldn't have had these fancy ideas if she'd been given a proper name, like Susan or Sharon; not Sara without an 'h'. Bloody poncy name; no wonder she gets these ideas. Whoever heard of an actress called Sharon, eh?"

My mother whispered something in his ear and his eyes opened wide. "Well, anyhow, like I said, she's a herbivore, not a thespian. She should eat grass and make baby gazelles." "George!" said my mother. "Mind your words. Not in front of the children." "Sorry, but no, I don't want to hear any more of this nonsense."

This was his last words on the matter. That evening, while he was down by the lake having a drink he was surprised by a crocodile and dragged, thrashing, into the water. When we rushed to the edge of the lake all we saw was a few bubbles of air and a slowly expanding cloud of scarlet in the muddy water. I loved my father - I missed him, but it did make things easier for me because my mother was less against my taking up an acting career. I eventually managed to wear her down; she let me join a local theatre group.

At the theatre group, I was given a grounding in acting techniques: deportment; how to walk on stage and how to move my body; how to set the expression on my face to match my character's inner thoughts; breathing techniques; how to project my voice; practical aesthetics, the Stanislavski's system and Meisner technique. Under Method acting, I became Marlon Brando. I mingled with fellow actors. "Don't call me 'Ant'," said Anthony the anteater. "My name is 'Tony'. I'm an artiste."

After two years of local rep, I felt I could move on to higher things. Always at the back of my mind was the thought of red carpets and a crowd of paparazzi; being wined and dined by some rich, handsome, famous leading actor - a movie star. Glancing through The Stage, I caught sight of an ad from the BBC, looking for a young, female Thomson's gazelle, for a part in an upcoming programme. 'A start,' I thought. I sent off my acting resume to the Bristol address and waited, dreaming.

They got in touch with me; they were interested. Luckily I didn't have to fly out to England; they were on their way to Kenya to do the filming for another part of the series. They asked me to meet them at Tsavo; to be interviewed for the part, and perhaps to have a screen test. I waved goodbye to my mum and sister and friends and caught the bus down the Mombasa road. "Well," said Nigel Wittering-Carnage, the film director, "you certainly look the part: young; sleek; very photogenic." My skin crawled when he ran his hands across my flanks. "We'll do a few screen tests: I need you to graze calmly; to prick your ears; to show panic; to run and jump - as though chased. I need you to show fear. Look into the camera with a sad, tearful expression."

The screen tests went well, apparently, as I was next invited to read through the script. "Ant, could you not eat the termites now! We need them for when you do your scene," shouted Nigel Wittering-Carnage. "My name is Tony." said Anthony the anteater, who was also there, filming for an earlier episode in the series. "Tony, could you go to make up and get ready for your scene. Graham and the crew will be along in a moment... Now where were we? Ah, yes, you are on the Serengeti with your herd, peacefully grazing, when you hear a sound." [I raise my head sharply; widen my nostrils; prick up my ears.] "The rest of the herd starts to panic, they scatter away from the direction of the camera." [I start running.] "You run and jump, but are clearly troubled by a leg injury." [I run with a limp.] "Then in shot appears Victor..." [This is a strong, young male cheetah, who is also in the same scene.]

"I've got the scene, Nigel," says Victor, in his best George Sanders purr. "I chase the young lady..." [he smiles towards me] "...at high speed, kicking up sand and gravel for the benefit of the camera. I close in, concentrating on my victim. I take her off-balance with a swipe of my paw, like so..." [he pats my rear right haunch firmly, which knocks me onto my side] "...bite her on the back of the neck to put her into shock..." [he nips my neck] "...then clamp my mouth over her nostrils, while holding her down, to suffocate her." [His mouth envelops my mouth and nose; I can smell his hot, fetid breath, which smells of rancid meat, old blood and death. But before I start to panic, he lets go.]

"After killing her, I slice her open, like so..." [he runs his claws down the length of my belly] "...I then devour her entrails, ensuring my face and mouth is smeared with blood - for the cameras - and then set down to eat her ribcage. Later, I am seen, hackles raised, spitting, when I face up against a pack of jackals, intent on stealing my kill - but I send them packing." [He produces his jackal-scaring face.]

"That's brilliant, Victor!" enthuses Nigel. "You were good too, Sara. I particularly liked the way you emoted the part where Victor held your nose in the suffocation scene: you looked panicky; fearful; sad; and shuddered and twitched into death beautifully." [I was trying not to be sick at the time.] "Well, then, do you think we could film this scene, next Thursday - say?"

Nigel and Victor both looked expectantly towards me.

With my young, sleek, photogenic looks, and theatre-trained voice, I found it easy to get a job as an air hostess. I've always wanted to be an air hostess, ever since I stopped wanting to be an actress. It was the thought of smart uniforms, travel to exotic places (Hong Kong and Luton), and being wined and dined by some young, handsome pilot that made me take this career move.

The only problem is there are no young handsome Thomson's gazelle pilots - they can't hold the control wheel in their hooves.

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