Film4 Summer Screen

On the set of Blow-Up

Janet Street Porter

17 Aug 2017

Janet Street-Porter takes us on a journey back to London in the swinging 1960s, as she shares her story of being cast in Blow-Up, a British cinema icon.  

Early in October 1966, I met the Italian film director Antonioni in the bar at the Architecture Association, where I was studying. He was looking for students to be in a film he was shooting in London called Blow Up. A charming, quietly spoken, middle aged man, he had a limited command of English, but through an assistant asked me and my friend Piers to an audition at the Porchester Baths in Bayswater. We were to wear our own clothes. In the end a whole gang of us got taken on. The only trouble was that we would have to report for work out at Borehamwood at some ungodly hour of the morning.

It was 9 o’clock in the morning and I’d been up since 6:30. Crawling out of a mattress on the floor of a friends flat in North London, I pulled on red and yellow striped PVC trousers and stuck on false eyelashes, outlining each eye with thick, black pencil, squinting in the mirror propped up on the mantelpiece. Next, a quick spray of silver on my long, matted hair, pulling on a tight vest. My outfit was completed by a silver plastic coat, then half a cup of black instant coffee (ugh!) and a dab of white lipstick.

I didn’t think filming would be this much hard work! On arrival, we were shepherded into a large studio where about a hundred other people were listlessly sitting on a few chairs or lying on the floor. A couple of Equity officials were sitting behind a trestle table, and we were asked to form an orderly queue to register our names and addresses to qualify for temporary membership - £5 would be deducted each day from our wages. By now we were frankly mutinous, desperate for coffee, a bun, a bacon sandwich, anything.

The scene being shot was set in a nightclub, with the Yardbirds playing. David Hemmings, the star of the movie, came into the club as the band were smashing up their instruments. It was a piece of cake. All the job involved was a lot of standing around looking cool – no problem there then. And to make it even better, I adored the Yardbirds and was totally besotted with Jeff Beck. With any luck, I might even get to meet him! In my PVC trousers and silver plastic coat I certainly cut an outlandish figure – think of a Dalek played by a string bean and you’ve got the look.

Suddenly a hush descended: Signor Antonioni had entered our holding pen. He walked up and down, looking carefully at everyone, followed by a whole retinue of self-important-looking men and women with clipboards and walkie-talkies. When he reached me, he smiled and asked me to wait on one side. Soon afterwards, he picked out a tall, good-looking black guy. Everyone else was herded into the next studio, where our scene was to be shot. For the next hour, he meticulously arranged everyone in position and gave them a mark.

I was placed in a gap with the good-looking man, and told that when the band started playing I had to dance. ‘Why did he pick HER?’ hissed one of the professional extras in a stage whisper, who clearly had the hump because the regular crowd fillers were far outnumbered by this motley band of students that the director had encountered in bars, colleges and clubs around Soho.  I got extra (£35 day) action money for my bit of dancing, much to everyone’s disgust. Everyone else was told to remain as still as possible. My first moment of fame – albeit in a non-speaking role!

After forty-five minutes, a bell rang and we all streamed outside and made a mad dash towards the tea trolley and a large pile of buns. Suddenly, hordes of starving students besieged the poor tea lady, who fled in terror.

David Hemmings was stuck up as far as we were concerned, not deigning to talk to us. With hindsight, I know he was terrified – this was his first big film part – and I later read that he was sleeping in the Rolls-Royce he drives around in the film. As a group of people, we thought we were super trendy and weren’t at all grateful to be chosen - in our eyes, we were doing Mr Antonioni a bit of a favour!

In that scene, I can spot so many of my friends today, including Manolo Blahnik the shoe designer, who’d just come to London to work in an antique shop.

An extract from:
BAGGAGE - My Childhood
By Janet Street-Porter
Published by Headline