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Ready When You Are, Mr McGill (1976)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

The cast and crew of an ITV Second World War drama arise early for a day of location shooting. Joe McGill, an extra playing 'old man in street', has been allocated one line of dialogue ("I've never seen that young lady in my life before, and I've lived here 50 years"), which he rehearses continually. While the seasoned extras are bussed to the churchyard location, the two principal cast members, Betty and Bernard, gripe about both having bought The Guardian and so only having a single crossword to pass the time. Terry, the director's assistant, is able to supply The Daily Telegraph as an alternative.

Phil, the director, plots a tracking shot for the first scene of the day, observed sceptically by cameraman Don and sound engineer Kenneth. Scene 241 entails Betty and Bernard exchanging dialogue, kissing, Betty departing and Joe joining Bernard to deliver the crucial line. As the scene is rehearsed, a workman arrives to paint a large shed nearby. On the first take, Phil belatedly realises that Joe has not been fitted in period costume. The following take is aborted when Kenneth notices the approach of an aircraft, and the next when Don's hand slips from the camera, although he tries to blame Betty for fluffing her lines. Before another take can be attempted, the catering van arrives and Phil is forced to break for breakfast.

By the time they resume, the weather has deteriorated and Take 4 is abandoned due to rainfall. The crew move to shoot a church interior scene, but there is no room for Joe and he is left outside. While sitting alone, Joe is approached by a schoolgirl, Deborah, who asks for his autograph, which he willingly gives her. He fantasises aloud about an illustrious acting career, but realising she has forgotten her pen, shouts after her. Unfortunately filming is taking place inside the church, and Terry berates him for having ruined the take.

During the lunch break, Phil's exhaustion and frayed nerves become increasingly apparent, especially when a brief visit from the production manager increases the pressure. Filming resumes outside the church once the weather has improved. Take 5 of Joe's scene unfolds flawlessly, until Don spots that a hair in the gate of the camera has destroyed the shot. The following take is abandoned when a crowd of schoolchildren invade the set, most of them descending on a bemused Joe once Deborah has pointed him out. The crew watch with exasperation as he signs autographs.

As the afternoon wears on and the other extras waste time in their coach, Scene 241 has still not wrapped. With an air of desperation, they embark on Take 13. Phil is unhappy with the delivery of Joe's line and, with the camera still running, attempts to coach from him a better reading of the line. This only succeeds in flustering Joe, who delivers increasingly confused and meaningless versions, culminating in an accurate but monotonous attempt. Utterly dispirited, Phil cannot face filming the close-ups of the scene and instructs the crew to move to another interior. When Joe appeals for another chance, Phil's frustration erupts in a tirade against his incompetence. Joe however, mounts a spirited defence and, chastened, Phil assures him that he will salvage the sequence in the editing room.

As the interior scene is being set up, and with the extras' coach waiting, Joe takes his leave of the cast and crew, but is discouraged from saying goodbye to Phil. Back at home, Joe tells his wife that the day's filming has been very successful, and they look forward to watching the transmission on a relative's colour television set. Slumped in the back of a car after his exhausting day, Phil announces his intention of scrapping Scene 241 entirely and writing its crucial information into another scene, regardless of the writer's intentions. Once the workman has left after painting the shed, a dog relieves itself against the fresh paintwork.