Monday, 17 January 2011

An undercover mission that involves sleeping with as many nubile green women as possible? Sign me up, says Nigel Farndale.


Mark Kennedy got one of the better undercover assignments

Mark Kennedy slept with a number of environmental protesters while undercover 
Was Mark Kennedy, the undercover policeman, told that part of his mission, should he choose to accept it, might include sleeping with as many nubile environmental protesters as possible? A tempting job spec, one might suppose. But how would that delicate subject be broached?
"Ah, come in, young Kennedy. Sit down, sit down. You are familiar, I presume, with the word 'infiltration'?"
Sorry, that came out all Stephen Fry – that sublimely unconvincing portrayal of a policeman in Gosford Park. I'm sure policemen don't talk like that, not even the ones pretending not to be policemen. Indeed, you can imagine how long Stephen Fry would last as an undercover policeman before the villains rumbled him, fired up their blowtorches and got medieval on his ass.
Can I say ass? It's a film reference, as you know. And "bottom" doesn't sound right. Neither does "buttocks". And now I'm talking about Stephen Fry's buttocks on the comment pages of The Sunday Telegraph and I'm not sure how to move on from it, or them.
It wasn't even the topic I was planning to write about. That would be the other undercover story, the one about the three actors who were paid by a local authority in north Wales to pretend to be drunk, as part of a police sting. Over nine nights they visited 49 pubs in order to find out which publicans, if any, would say: "Don't you think you've had enough, Sir?"
Now, on first hearing, this might sound nearly as good an assignment as being allowed to sleep with climate change protesters. But there would have been little scope for Stanislavskian method acting – preparing for the role with a cheeky half-bottle of crème de menthe before opening time, say – because the actors would have to report to their handlers at closing time. "Was I served in there? I'm sorry, ossifer, I have absolutely no recollection. But do you know what? Do. You. Know. What? I bloody love you."
So it seems the actors did indeed act drunk rather than actually get drunk; and apparently, only one publican out of 49 fell for their act. This despite a variety of "tactics", according to a report on the operation, which included "telling person serving them they were drunk", "slurred speech", "being dressed in dishevelled and stained clothing" and "falling over".
Herein may lie the problem. As Charlie Chaplin argued, the best way to act drunk is to imagine yourself a drunk man trying to act sober. It's an astute observation because there is a certain dignity about a drunken man: he feels his way with all the concentration and balance of a tightrope walker. He doesn't fall over, he corrects — the course correction of a 747 encountering mild turbulence.
As for the slurring, consider cinema's greatest drunk: Richard E Grant in Withnail and I. As he is allergic to alcohol, he was sober throughout – apart from one night when the director poured booze down his throat, just so he knew what it felt like. But what is remarkable about his performance is that he never slurs, though you are sure afterwards that he was doing so all the time. In the famous scene in Penrith Tea Rooms, he brings even more depth to the role by playing Withnail as a naturally rude man trying to be polite as he drunkenly requests "cake and fine wine".
This was where I suspect the actors in Wales went wrong: the bar staff had seen far too many genuine drunks trying hard not to slur their words to be taken in by sober, slurring, stumbling impostors.

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