on the face of it

Endlessly interested in character actors,

I catch myself wondering if they are really as they seem –  so dour, so ditzy, so dangerous – or whether in real life they are all perfectly ordinary men and women (whatever those are) who just happen to have a cast of countenance useful in a particular story and the way the camera sees them.

“Don’t look like that” said my mother to me, as far back as I can remember.  “You’ll turn the milk sour.”   Or even more intriguing was another remark, usually addressed to her reflection in the mirror when she was tired “Oh dear, I can’t take that out – it’ll frighten the horses !” 

When I was small I wanted to know-why horses ? – and she had to explain to me that when she was my age, quite a lot of vehicles were still horse drawn.  I thought this was very romantic and she left me with that lovely image till, much closer to adulthood, I saw some programme about the rise of the engine, to which she commented drily “More dust, less smell.”  If you’re allowed horses as in fairy tales, the reality of horse manure comes as a bit of a shock. 

But I’ve thought of the sour milk image several times this week, when I see people rushing off with 27 packets of loo roll and enough dried pasta to feed an army.  And I am sure I look disapproving.

A very old woman frowns unhappily in this black and white portrait.

Probably one of the reasons that a tv career was not open to me was because, no matter how controlled the voice, one look at my face and you’d know exactly what I was thinking.  My radio crews tumbled to it and laughed in the production booth, my son still teases me about it.  And as I get older, my facial expressions echo (as do occasional vocal inflections) what I recall of one parent or the other in particular circumstances.

For example, the boys next door woke me from deep sleep the day I came home from the eye hospital.   I lay there, listened for a minute or two and reached for the dressing gown, convinced it was about 4.00 am and this wasn’t on.  So channeling Hecate,

white hair to the shoulders in a long robe, I opened the door and said to the group trying to extricate an unwilling passenger from the car they share, in tones just like my  Edwardian mother at her martial best “It is very early in the morning.”  They stopped dead.    I said it again, the voice of authority in received pronunciation.   James said  “Oh Anna, I’m sorry, did we wake you ?” to which I rejoined “Sort it out”- that dates  me, right there – which I reiterated when he tried to say more.

I relocked the door and swept into the living room, furious about being disturbed in my own home, wah-wah-wah, checked with the speaking clock and found it was 12.02 am.  Was my face red.  And then, thank you Robert Burns, I saw myself as others see us – and it was truly horse frightening.  So when that evening, James and Harry arrived with what are known as “a few flahs”,

we all laughed.  I told them how I had misjudged the time and how I had “seen” myself and they told me they had been trying to get rid of the gatecrasher for an hour or more but that  he left a few minutes after I spoke.  (When I told Buns this story, he said he thought I should retrain at once, I clearly have a future in security.)

There is a place, of course there is, for the expressive face, the wonderful speaking glance you exchange with a perfect stranger and just know without a word spoken, you are on the same wavelength – or maybe just one word.  “Indeed” you say and reap the harvest of acknowledgement.

Much more recently, in what is laughingly called maturity, I came to appreciate Wal’s theory about the power of confidence – not bombast, not throwing your weight around and being disagreeable – just being able to be and letting your face speak for you.  But when skin is so thin and so many people are on the jump, you have to be prepared to give account of yourself.  Or huddle behind your mask.

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