'Your ego has to be left at the door': the secret life of the understudy

From the warm-up comic to the F1 test driver and the reserve goalie, what is it like to work in someone else’s shadow?

I studied engineering at Cambridge: it’s fascinating to test the technical innovations first-hand’

Oliver Turvey, 32, Formula One test driver, Penrith

I started racing karts when I was eight at my local track in Cumbria. I won my first national championship when I was 12, and my second, in a different class, when I was 15. The following year I progressed to racing single-seater cars. It was a struggle. Motor sport is really expensive and my family didn’t have the money, but we managed to find some sponsorship.

I had some successful years in the Formula BMW UK Championship and got nominated for the McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year award at the age of 19, which I went on to win. That was quite a turning point. The prize included a test drive in a McLaren F1 car. That first test went really well and I signed for the team as a test driver at the end of the year.

In the early 2000s, test drivers did a lot of track testing. Nowadays, that’s quite limited. Access to the cars is difficult and the race drivers themselves want to track-test as much as possible. But, most years, I’ve been fortunate enough to drive the car for a couple of days at least. Most of my time at McLaren is spent driving the simulator in the team’s factory in Woking. In the short term, it’s about working on the car’s set-up for the next race. In the medium term, it’s working on developing the car through the season. And then there’s the long term, adapting the design of next year’s car within any new regulations that are coming in.

I studied engineering at Cambridge, and have always been interested in the technical side. You get to see the developments and innovations first-hand – they all come through the simulator before the car is manufactured. Other test drivers are maybe less interested in this aspect. Perhaps my fascination for it is why I’ve been a test driver for 10 years; I’m one of the longest-standing in Formula One.

It’s important for a race driver to have someone they believe in. Every time a new driver comes in, they want to understand your role and to trust that you’re improving the car for them. And you need to understand what they want from the car. At each post-race debrief, we listen back to the drivers on their radios to hear their feedback.

As a kid, racing in Formula One was obviously the dream. Being a test driver can be a route to one of the racing spots in a team – you always hope you have the chance to step up one day. But there are few opportunities. There are only 20 seats in a season – it’s a very tough environment. It won’t happen for me now.

At the same time as testing for McLaren, though, I have been able to develop my career as a race driver. I’ve raced across many formulas, including Formula Three and GP2. I’ve also won the Le Mans 24-Hour race in the LMP2 class. I currently race in Formula E, the class that solely uses electric-powered cars, so I still carry a dream of becoming a world champion. McLaren have been very flexible in working around my racing schedule: they think it’s good for me to be race-sharp.

I feel very proud to have made a career out of motor sport. Many of the guys I used to race didn’t even progress from karting. Even if I didn’t quite reach the pinnacle of Formula One, being a test driver for one of the top teams has been the next best thing.

‘People study for degrees in their dressing room. I did my master’s’

Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah, 39, actor, London

Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah at the Theatre Royal in Margate
Rosemary Annabella Nkrumah at the Theatre Royal in Margate: ‘Your adrenaline levels are always high.’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

I didn’t start out understudying – I did a lot of ensemble stuff and had some lead roles. But the bigger the productions that I’ve worked on since, the more understudying work I’ve done. I was the understudy for the role of Hermione Granger, played by Noma Dumezweni, in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child for three and a half years. Over that time, I was Hermione on just eight occasions.

I’ve just finished a run in a production of The Color Purple. I had a featured role as Darlene, but was also an understudy for the part of Shug Avery. I had an understudy for my featured role and so, if I needed to become Shug Avery, my understudy would step up. Having both a featured role and being an understudy in the same production is really common; most understudies have responsibility elsewhere.

Nobody becomes an actor to be an understudy. We’re all ambitious, but you have to be patient. A standard West End production will have eight shows a week, spread over either five or six days. We are required to be at the theatre for every performance – even if we’re just sitting in our dressing rooms. There are always ways to keep yourself busy and engaged off stage. During my time at Harry Potter, when not on stage in my ensemble role, I would regularly work on the script and the character of the role. I’d also watch the show from the wings to stay as connected as possible. If you need to go on, you need to be there.

You might not have the same level of contact with your director as the principal actor, so you’ve got to be really on the ball. You always have to be at the point of emotional and physical preparedness, in order to go on at the drop of a hat. Your adrenaline levels are always high. You’ve got to keep sharp and stimulated, too – boredom can have a huge impact on you psychologically. I know people who study for degrees in their dressing room. In fact, I did my master’s in music while understudying.

Do understudies get on with lead actors? Everyone is different; sometimes personalities knit nicely together, other times they don’t. But generally speaking, a company of actors will endeavour to work well together for the good of the production. I’ve always been fortunate enough to work in that way.

I’ll look back fondly on my understudy days, without a shadow of a doubt. Being an actor is not just about the role itself – it’s about the company, the project, the content. Understudying has taught me about self‑belief. You need to have a heck of a lot of it – and those lessons filter into the rest of your life.

‘You’re not part of the evening, you’re a footnote’

Mark Olver, 44, TV warm-up act, Bristol

Mark Olver, warm-up comedian, on the set of 8 out of 10 Cats do Countdown at Media City in Manchester
Mark Olver: ‘The job is a combination of standup, cabin crew and holiday camp redcoat.’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

I started doing standup in the late 90s, in exactly the same way that every other comedian does – clubs, open spots, gigging all over the place.

But I worked out early on that compering was something I could do, too. In 2004, there was a Channel 4 show, Kings Of Comedy, where standup comedians lived together in a Big Brother-style house. Every week they’d do a gig and the least good person would be evicted. Beforehand, the production team wanted to see how a comedy club worked and, because it was being made in Bristol, they came to see one of the nights I compered. When they started doing the live eviction show, hosted by Russell Brand, they asked me to do the warm-up.

I did a few more warm-ups the following year, and then Deal Or No Deal started, which I did for more than 10 years. I now do a lot of shows. I’m the warm-up on Have I Got News For You, Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out, The Last Leg, and loads more.

The core task of warm-up is the same as standup: it’s communicating with people – making them comfortable, making them laugh. The job is a combination of standup, cabin crew and holiday camp redcoat. A lot of it is housekeeping, so I try to find the funniest way to do it. I have jokes about every element of the studio experience: health and safety, fire exits, mobile phones. I joke about getting a young person to turn off your mobile phone for you, about drug dealers and doctors having a night off, about teenagers struggling to go two hours without Instagram. There’s lots of admin. There’s getting the right shots for the director, and there’s making sure the audience aren’t worn out before the show begins. I sometimes need to slow them down, because I want them to still have energy in four-and-a-half hours’ time.

With standup, the crowd has come to see you, or at least a night you are part of. With warm-up, you’re not an expected part of the evening – you’re an appendix or footnote. It’s not the place to experiment with quirky material – the warm-up has to fit with the tone of the show.

If there’s a break in the recording, you have to plug the gap; one skill I have is that I can just talk for ever. I’m happy discussing the perfect burger or the best biscuit or my favourite service station ad nauseam – I think I’m a naturally funny person. Once, on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, I was told I only needed to do five minutes, because everyone was ready, but the floor manager came up to me and said, “There’s a problem. Someone’s refusing to sign a contract.” And I was on for an hour.

Lots of other people who do warm-up aren’t comics; they may have come from cruise ships or holiday camps. There are a few standups on the circuit who do warm-up, but not many enjoy it, as the ego has to be left at the door.

If I met someone at a party, I’d still describe myself as a standup. I’ve got a gig in Halifax later this week, sandwiched between doing Pointless today, The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice on Sunday and 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown on Monday. It’s a varied life and I’ve done warm-ups around the world: in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Rio. It’s lovely to be a full-time comedian and I’m really well-paid.

I’ve got standup friends who are now superstars – I used to live with both Russell Howard and Jon Richardson. But I’m very happy where I am. Whatever level you’re at in comedy, there’s always someone above you, so you have to find a place where you’re at ease. And I am considered one of the best at what I do, even though it’s quite niche. When Richard Osman introduces me to people, he says, “This is Mark Olver. He’s the best warm-up in the world.” I would never say that myself, but I’m glad that he does.

‘I nearly lost both legs a couple of years ago. Just sitting on the bench is an achievement’

Eartha Cumings, 20, second-choice goalkeeper, Bristol City

Eartha Cumings, goalkeeper for Bristol City Ladies FC, at the club's ground SGS College Campus in Bristol
Eartha Cumings at the Bristol City Ladies FC ground: ‘It can be quite isolating.’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

I’ve been a goalkeeper since I started playing football at the age of five with the local boys’ team in Edinburgh. I joined Bristol City in the summer of 2018, but only turned professional this summer. Last season I was combining football with studying ancient history at university. But that went a bit sideways as I was spreading myself too thin, so I decided to leave uni and focus on football.

I made two appearances for the first team last season: one in the Continental Tyres League Cup and one in the FA Cup. The Conti Cup game against Aston Villa was played in torrential rain. We were winning 4-0, but I slipped in the mud and they scored. Not a dream debut. But we won the FA Cup game 3-0, so it was relatively easy.

During the week, I do the same training and gym sessions as the first-choice goalkeeper, Sophie Baggaley. The only difference is that, at the weekend, I’m on the bench and Sophie is on the pitch. I’m sitting down and she’s standing up.

There’s a danger that, knowing the chances of actually playing on Sunday are low, you just go through the motions. You’ve got to motivate yourself. There could be an injury at any moment and you’d be in at the deep end. It’s hard to feel ready, and keep feeling ready, for something that’s probably not going to happen. It can be quite isolating. Outfield players can at least come on for five or 10 minutes at the end of the game, but with goalkeepers it’s all or nothing. It’s tough: it can make you feel as if you’re not part of the team.

You can’t wish ill on the first-choice keeper though. I respect that Sophie’s better than me and we are great friends, despite us vying for the same spot. Maybe if you didn’t get on with the first-choice keeper, you’d go to the coach and shout about it: “Why am I not playing?”

Because they don’t get game time, understudy goalkeepers have to show the best of themselves in training. That’s their audition. I don’t have to dislodge Sophie this year. At the end of my 12-month contract, it won’t be “Eartha’s not number one, so she’s out”; it’s more that I have to be pushing myself and pushing Sophie – blurring the line between the number one and number two. The club want the best goalkeeper, regardless of who that is. It can be hard to maintain concentration and motivation to prove myself every day when, more than likely, at the end of the week I won’t be the one who’s playing. But if I decide to stop trying, I will be damaging Sophie’s chances of improving, too.

This year will hopefully be the year I can really kick on. I have international ambitions, too. I’ve played for Scotland under-19s, and I want to play in the World Cup for the full side.

A couple of years ago, I nearly lost both my legs. I got compartment syndrome. During a fairly routine operation for a health condition, there was a problem with oxygen flow getting to the muscles and they began to swell up and up. If not operated on in time, compartment syndrome results in the breakdown and death of your muscles. I had to sign a form giving the surgeons permission to amputate if the operation went wrong. I was a footballer and my life was in my legs. I had to have numerous surgeries to repair the injury and spent a good bit of time on crutches. Nearly losing the opportunity to play football changed my outlook. Even if I’m just sitting on the bench, I still think that’s a huge achievement.

‘If I took Richard Hawley’s place, people would ask for their money back’

Gordon White, 56, guitar roadie, Leeds

Gordon White, guitar maintenance and tech man, at his workshop at Blueberry Hill Studios in Leeds
Gordon White at Blueberry Hill Studios in Leeds: ‘If you’ve ever been in a band, you always regret packing it in.’ Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

I went to art college. Everyone there pretends to be a painter or a sculptor, but it’s just a way of getting into bands. We described our band as punk-skiffle, a description we made up, because it fitted what we did: you played whatever instrument you were given or had found in a skip. We made a godawful racket. We were technically appalling, but we had the enthusiasm of youth.

We were doing gigs around Leeds, but I had some friends who were in a band called Cud and they were doing a fair bit better; they were gigging beyond Leeds and getting John Peel sessions. One day they had a gig in Preston and they were looking for someone to drive them. “Can you drive?” “Yes.” “Can you hire a van and drive us to Preston?” “Yes.” “We’ll give you £10 for it.” “Yes!”

So a driving licence was the most important qualification I ever got. Then it became, “Can you set the amps up? Can you tune the guitars?” Cud started playing bigger gigs in bigger venues and you’d bump into other bands on the road. They’d say, “Oh, we need someone, too.” Before I knew it, it was a job.

I’ve been working with Richard Hawley for about 12 years. Anywhere he has to plug in a guitar – including in-store shows or TV and radio appearances – I’ll be there. I can do a couple of weeks touring with him and then come back and get on with things in my workshop. We’re all of a certain age and we’ve all got kids and families. None of us are remotely interested in the one‑and-a-half-years-away-from-home thing.

On tour, a big chunk of the day will be spent setting everything up on stage: amps, pedals and the like. Richard uses four amps and about 30 pedals. They surround him in a semi-circle – an arc of guitar noise. He also uses about 12 guitars per gig; it’s virtually a guitar change with every song. Once the PA is set up, I tend to do a soundcheck by having a go on a couple of the guitars, making a bit of a racket and making sure all the pedals do what they should be doing. I need to make it sound the same as it did the night before – what I heard when I stood in the middle of that arc of noise 24 hours earlier.

Through working with Richard, I ended up working with Duane Eddy, as his guitar tech when he comes to the UK. I’ve also worked with the Cure, Joe Strummer, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Tindersticks and Embrace.

If you’ve been in a band, you always regret packing it in. Life gets in the way and you have a mortgage to pay. But I couldn’t contemplate being able to do what Richard does: his skill as a songwriter, singer and guitarist is at such a level.

Richard needs me, and I need him, but I don’t think he could do my job, and I certainly couldn’t do his. If something terrible happened and Richard couldn’t do a gig one night, but they decided to go ahead with me in his place, I think there’d be a lot of people asking for their money back.

• If you would like a comment on this piece to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).


Nige Tassell

The GuardianTramp

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