I was sitting at home. I can't remember what I was doing, but a safe bet would be either dicking about with a new trick or watching wrestling. The phone rang and a stranger started to explain to me that he had been tasked with finding someone who could not only do, but also teach, the tablecloth trick to the star of a new big Hollywood movie. Apparently my name had come up several times, so here he was. I said that yes, it's teachable, and he told me that he'd be back in touch with more details soon, and no, he wasn't allowed to tell me the name of the star or the movie or anything else.
Which is how I found myself, a couple of weeks later, standing in a hastily erected gazebo in the middle of a muddy field, next to a fully-laden dining table as Henry Cavill strode toward me, dressed in an all black special ops type outfit, covered in mud and fake blood, thrusting his hand out for me to shake with a confident and charming "Hi, I'm Henry, so what are we doing?"
My first thought as the heterosexual, long time married, professional that I am, if I'm being completely honest, was, "OMG he's gorrrrgeous" but I swiftly regained my composure. But heavens to betsy: hunktown.
So we spend a little while talking about the trick, and picking props, and working it through, and by the time we said goodbye, he'd pretty much nailed it. Everyone seemed very happy, and the plan was that I'd be on set for the duration of the shooting of the relevant scene to help wrangle the props, keep Henry up to speed on the trick, and generally make sure that my part of the scene ran as smoothly as possible.
So, couple of weeks later, Monday morning, and I'm in a car being driven to Goodwood racetrack, where a city of trailers, production trucks, hair and makeup units, stunt teams, catering and famous folk have gathered to film a couple of scenes for Guy Ritchie's reboot of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."
Here's how four of the five days of my week there went. I arrive, go get breakfast from the cheery and expansive catering truck, and go sit in a bus. I mean it's comfy and nice and warm, as has sparkly showbiz lights running around the walls, but it's still just a bus. And I watch movies on my tablet. And then, at lunchtime, suddenly there's the sound of stampeding support artists, and the bus suddenly fills with chattering extras, all dressed in the most beautiful cool 60's duds, inhaling as much lunch as they can. They talk and gossip about what they've been doing, and I pick up on a few overheard details, trying to build a mental picture of what the scene actually looks like. Then they're gone, and back to work, and I'm left with the bus to myself to watch more movies and graze more snacks, until, at some point around 4pm, a nice lady will pop her head in, say "Ok, you're clear Mat, your car is ready when you are", and I'll go home.
That's how it was for four days, but on the fifth day, things got a little more involved.
It was my first time actually seeing the set, and holy crap. A huge cocktail lounge had been built, filled with dozens and dozens of extras, barmen, waiters, cool countesses and hipster dudes, through which our heroes would saunter, before stopping at a balcony, outside of which actual genuine vintage racing cars would zoom by, and beyond the track, another hundred or so extras watching the race. This is the kind of scene that, had I seen it on screen, I probably would have assumed was largely CGI, but no, real people, real racing cars. Only the cocktails were fake.
I chatted to Henry, we looked at the props, he practiced the move a couple of times and all was well.
Then Guy Ritchie introduced himself to me, thanked me for being there, said how great my trick will be in the scene, and was generally very affable and blokey. He walked over to talk to some film folk, then, across a set filled with actors and crew, he turned and yelled across the hubbub at me. "Mat, mate..." he said, "So apparently you can put the tablecloth back on the table too? Is that right?" I told him, yeah, I can, and that I was the first person in the world to learn it. "You wanna teach Henry that, too?" he yelled.
That kinda put me on the spot. Changing the terms of a deal, on set, in front of everyone. Ballsy fucker, I thought, but then again, it is his house. "Sorry", I yelled back, "My contract is for pulling it off", then I chanced a little ballsyness of my own, "You're not paying enough for putting it back on."
Genuinely, and I promise you this is true, there was a silent, and seemingly way too long pause. Until Mr. Ritchie broke it by grinning and saying, "Fair enough." Another long pause, "FUCKING great trick though!"
I said thanks, and took a long deep breath out, and everyone went back about their showbusiness.
The rest of the day was spent hovering behind cameras, watching the scene over and over, watching Henry nail the trick pretty much every time (Good teacher), and generally enjoying being on a major movie set. Even if you're a jaded and cynical old showbiz grunt like me, big movie sets are still incredibly exciting places to be. The crew are like a military unit - everyone a specialist, working as a well-oiled team to push the overall thing forward.
After a long day of repeating the same thing a zillion times, we wrapped and I was cleared to go home. One last firm manly handshake with Henry and a couple of crew members, and I was in a car, having signed a piece of paper saying that I couldn't talk about any of this, or post any of the pictures you see here, for nearly TWO YEARS.
Yep, this all happened in Autumn 2013, and only now am I allowed to admit my involvement. Almost like being a spy.
The movie looks like it's going to be pretty fun. Stylish, witty, and paying tribute to the source material, which I'm a bit of a fan of. I can't wait to see it, and not just to be the only person in the cinema cheering a tablecloth.