Five Seconds of Fame: When Cambridge students hit the small-time

TIM O’BRIEN uncovers the stories behind Cambridge students’ most dubious on-screen appearances.

acting background actors Cambridge Acting cambridge students cambridge university students eddie redmayne extras fame fifteen minutes of fame Film gay romantic comedy it crowd on screen supporting actor the king's speech TV

Not many people know this, but I was once famous.

At least, on paper, I should have been. After all, my debut role ‘Man in Rose Garden’ in the 2007 low budget gay romantic comedy Oh Happy Day no doubt contributed to the film’s minor cult status. Sure, it was only two seconds of screen time, but ‘Woman in Rose Garden’ and I executed our fake conversation with an award-winning level of conviction.

Image: Firebrand Films

Sadly, the acting career ended there – I blame the fact that she (along with ‘shouting guy’ and ‘waste expert’) got an IMDB credit and I didn’t. Either way, the phone never rang, and life has never been the same.

This week, as I reminisced about these glory days, I had a thought – Cambridge has a rich history of students appearing on the screen. But for every Eddie Redmayne or Emma Thompson, there must be hundreds more whose story resembles my own. Who are these people? Where are they now? How has it changed their life?

Intrigued by this murky underworld of tenuous claims to fame, I set out to investigate the stories behind Cambridge students appearing on screen.

Chris – The King’s Speech

Chris is an alumnus of Hughes Hall. After leaving Cambridge, he went and became part of The Army Reserve (then known as the TA), and through that heard of an extra agency looking for people with weapon handling experience. Unaware he was about to become part of the one of the most successful British films of the decade, he turned up at Odsal Stadium (‘Wembley of the North’) where they were shooting the famous stadium sequence from The King’s Speech.

“Everything was very exciting and lots going on,” he remembers. “We got ushered to the pitch and some military advisor gave us instructions on the rifle drill he wanted from us and where to stand – this went on for three days.”

The big moment

Despite freezing temperatures and long periods of standing around, spirits remained high.

“Us squaddies know how to keep ourselves entertained – we started doing the rifle drill upside down, and were bobbing up and down when they said action. Maybe that’s why it took so long to shoot.”

I ask Chris how his life changed as the result of such exposure. “Saying I was in a film has definitely changed my life in the lady department,” he answers, “that is, until the moment arrives when they ask where you were.”

(0:19 for the excitement.)

James – The IT Crowd

You may recognize James as former Tab Editor, presenter of Cam FM’s ‘Come Chat With Me’, or from a mature college scandal I probably shouldn’t bring up. But his real career in the spotlight started back when he appeared on mildly entertaining British sitcom The IT Crowd, and as a result was immortalised in the background of a popular internet meme.

James, smack bang in the middle – a blonde boy-band version of Daniel Day Lewis?

I ask him how such a prestigious and career-defining role came about.

“Being a Crystal Palace fan doesn’t have many benefits so I seized upon the opportunity to earn £20, cash in hand, for doing some extra work when it was advertised on our supporter’s forum – I had little to no idea what I would be doing.”

As the lowest level on a film set’s hierarchy, extras have no room to be demanding, nor can they add much artistic flair to their performance, but this didn’t stop James. “The prop man had to run and fetch me a jacket because I was dressed inappropriately”, he remembers. “We also weren’t given any direction, so my discussion of the 4-4-2 tactic at 0:08 is entirely improvised. As is the constant leaning into shot.”

I then pose the question that’s been nagging me throughout our conversation. Returning back to reality after such heights must be difficult – did it change anything for him? He replies calmly, almost sagely, like a weathered old man who has lived a long and interesting life, “not at all, I’ve never even seen the episode.”

Danni – Intel Advert

Danni from Wolfson ended up becoming preserved in TV history through a fleeting, but crucial, appearance in an Intel advert. Skyping me via her Intel Core computer, Danni explains how her moment of fame materialised.

“I was working as a runner at the time and had been running around all night fetching hot chocolate for executives when they called me to come and sit down. They powdered my nose, put a suitcase next to me, and shouted action.”

As she tells me her story, I spot a tear gently forming in the corner of her eye. Her voice becomes quieter, her speech slower.

“As I was pretending to read the news, I was thinking about what I would tell all my friends… but I was disappointed to see my that my one hour of sitting down became less than one second of blurred air time.”

He should have stayed away from Eel Marsh House..

They say fame, no matter how much you experience, whether it’s one second on an Intel advert or a lifetime of stardom, is a bit like heroin – one hit and no other drug will compare. I ask Danni what she thinks of this. She pauses for what seems like an eternity.

“It.. it.. it certainly had a moreish quality.”

(Blink and you’ll miss it – Danni’s moment comes at 0:03.)

Joe – Sophie Grigson’s Moroccan Christmas Special 

Let’s be honest, whilst The King’s Speech and The IT crowd are amongst some of the most iconic British productions of recent times, neither quite compare to Sophie Grigson’s 2011 Moroccan Christmas Special for UKTV Gold. Joe, the Tab’s very own deputy debate editor, was there to become part of this historic event, and was even given a line.

“My cameo consisted of saying ‘ummm this pigeon is delicious’,” he recounts. “I had to do the take four times, each time chewing a mouthful and then looking amazed before saying my line. The problem was I kept chewing for too long, so they eventually gave my line to a 7-year old, who did it in one take.”

Fortunately this was not the end for Joe.

“I’m still in the background, wine in hand, staring resentfully into the back of her head.”

An artist’s reconstruction of Joe’s appearance (sadly, the programme is no longer available)

I ask him about the wine – did he at least manage to get drunk?

“It was actually water. I still drank it all though, so the joke’s on them.”


Do you have Five Seconds of Fame story? Know someone who does? Email [email protected] to feature in part two…