My favourite soap "Coronation Street" has hit the headlines once more. Not this time however for the excellence of its storylines, its social relevance or the fabulous acting of the regular cast. In fact, on this occasion, for exactly the opposite. Poor Sarah Harding, the ex Girls Aloud singer, seems to have a hard time on those famous cobbles, and her Coronation Street contract is not to be extended beyond the four episodes she was booked for.
There has been an enormous amount of incredibly negative feedback on Twitter about the woodenness of her performance. In the scenes I glimpsed on You Tube, there was a distinct danger that if she stood still for too long she might be chopped up for kindling. And yet one can't help feeling sorry for her.
Having seen her performance in the finished programme, I can't imagine that Miss Harding gave a brilliant reading at the audition, and then somehow screwed it up on set. What she did at the reading was probably what we saw on screen. More likely that a producer, so absolutely blinded as to what he was seeing given that he had a former member of Girls Aloud in the room, thought that the sheer gimmick of casting her would outweigh the necessity of Miss Harding being able to act. Certainly she is no Kym Marsh, another reality pop star creation who has made a very successful transition into soap, but surely that must have been evident at her interview.
Is this sort of gimmickry in casting really necessary? Coronation Street is a flagship ITV show, a brand that people choose to watch no matter who's in it. Yes, of course there has been an increasing amount of celebrity casting in recent years as producers seem to place less and less trust in the programme and more in what they perceive as the desire of the public to see famous faces on the street or in the square. Les Dennis was a recent addition, but Dennis had already proved himself as an actor both on TV and in significant roles on the stage. Bonnie Langford's recent sojourn in Albert Square was backed by years of experience and hard work. I haven't seen Miss Harding's previous work, but I suspect her appearance in St Trinian's 2 - The Legend of Fritton's Gold was hardly demanding, and her appearance in "Freefall" as Dominic Cooper's beautician girlfriend was so fleeting that it gave her little time to get anything wrong.
If you want to see some of the best acting in Britain in any given week, you could do worse than to tune into one of our soap operas. The divine June Brown in "Eastenders", the brilliance of David Neilson in Coronation Street - just two examples of a masterclass in screen acting available for students of drama to study on a regular weekly basis.
If you had a plumbing crisis in your home, you most probably wouldn't get an electrician in to give them a try out and see how they do. You would choose somebody with previous experience of water. Why is it then that people think acting is something that can be taken on board by celebrities with absolutely no experience of it at all?
No one can teach you to how to act - it's a natural talent, but they can teach you how to be an actor. Here in the United Kingdom we have drama schools offering what is recognised to be the best drama training in the world. Releasing some four or five hundred graduates every year, each of whom will have put themselves in considerable debt to take on board that training. Training now being denied to many talented young people from low income families . And it is generally acknowledged that the drama schools are training too many people. So there is no shortage of young talented actors and actresses available. Yet it seems to get a role in a major drama series, they may as well throw away any idea of formal training and attack the TV reality market with gusto. Get themselves some on camera experience, a little bit of time in a pop band and know that at the end of it a prominent role in a serial drama will be on offer.
If you want somebody to act, then get a trained actor. Particularly if you're working on a programme where schedules are horrendously tight and you require people to be able to hit their mark time after time. That's what training does. It prepares people for the world they are about to enter. Just as a plumbing qualification helps you deal with a sink. Having spent time as a semi regular in three soap operas on British television, I'm fully aware of how fast one is required to operate. The crew need to know exactly what they're doing, and as an actor that is little time for you to breathe. You have to be able to make performance decisions, often with very little direction, and you have to be able to deliver material of all standards and make it believable and realistic. That's what requires the training.
Yet I am on Miss Harding's side. An undoubted seasoned performer in the field of music, she felt nervous and panic stricken at working with these icons of soap. I know from my own personal experience of treading the cobbles in Weatherfield that on your first day terror reigns supreme. My wife in the programme was an actress with an enormous list of TV credits. Yet she had serious butterflies as we stepped onto the street for our first scene. The regular cast are immensely kind and welcoming, but the sheer terror factor of stepping into a national institution is not to be underestimated. Miss Harding was sent into battle without any training, and the world at large, the Twitterati, and of course, The Daily Mail, have shot her down. An easy target. Much more so than the people who sent her out there so unprepared.
Hundreds of immensely talented young actors and actresses have just left drama school and are making their first steps in strides into what they hope will be a career. Let's hope they get the breaks they deserve. We often hear complaints from actors, and Equity, the actors Union, the producers, directors, and casting directors use the same faces time and time again. Surely there's no problem with that if the actors concerned are good. If Sheridan Smith and Olivia Colman can increase the ratings on your programme, then go for it. But they can also act. They can act with consummate grace and ease and they know what they are doing. Eventually the public will tire of Smith and Colman, and other people will be brought into view. Let's hope they're given their chances because they can do the job. And do it well.
And as a postscript for Miss Harding. The Actors Centre which is the foremost institution designed to support professional trained actors from accredited drama schools in their careers, also offers open access courses for people with little or no experience who want to find out if acting is for them. You get to work alongside top-level professionals in a safe and supportive environment, and you get a chance to work out whether the world of the actor is for you. Great if it is, but for many it's just that little bit harder than you might think.