The Nottingham based acting coach talks about discovering Samantha Morton and his ongoing collaboration with Shane Meadows.
Ian Smith has been running Nottingham based drama group, The Television Workshop, for more than 25 years, where he has been responsible for discovering, amongst others, Samantha Morton, Toby Kebbell, Jack O’ Connell, Michael Socha, and Angus Thongs And Perfect Snogging actress Georgia Groome.
In 2005, the Workshop picked up a BAFTA for its contribution to the industry. His current protégées include Oscar Kennedy who is starring as a young Nigel Slater in Ruby Films/BBC Films Toast.
How did the workshop begin?
The Workshop was set up in 1983 because Central Television set up new studios in Nottingham. They kept having to ship up kids from London and the head of children’s realised that there was an economic incentive to train up local kids.There was also a sense that a lot of those kids they were bringing up were stage school kids, and they were doing things like Murphy’s Mob, which was to be filmed locally which didn’t seem right, so the initial group was set up. It then became quite an attractive thing for casting directors to have this group on tap. It also became a research unit as well. They had directors and producers and writers coming down and working with the kids and getting their ideas. Their feedback would be listened to.
How do you fund the group?
We have gone through some scary phases. The BBC and ITV have both funded us over the years. Up until last year, we didn’t charge the kids for the Workshop. It was one of the main tenets of our belief. If you keep it open and free to everyone, you will get a wide range of kids coming along. That is what we have become known for - we have this wide range of different kids from different ethnic and social backgrounds. It’s about a social mix.
But last year it the BBC were unable to fund us and we basically had to grit our teeth and charge the kids. But we are making sure that there are bursaries in place so that we don’t lose one single talented kid. We managed to get some funding from the Foyle Foundation which has given us some breathing space.
How many kids apply each year?
It changes every year, but in terms of the actual auditions, I see getting on for 1000. But recently the number of under 11s applying has dropped, so I had to go round schools with the Bafta award..
It’s also been a lot easier to attract young black actors than working class white lads. And it’s actually the white working class lads, who are currently most attractive to casting directors because of their scarcity. The first thing I used to do, when I was a teacher and was producing a school play, was to go and chat with the lads playing football, to try to woo them into acting, to get it out of their heads that “acting is gay”.
Shane Meadows always calls on you when he’s looking for young actors..how did that relationship develop?
Shane had cast a couple of ex workshop kids, Gina Kawecka, and Dina Smiles, in Small Time. And so he decided to come down and see what the Workshop was all about. He was like a kid in a sweet shop, with brothers Karl Collins and Johann Myers, Darren Campbell, Ladene Hall, Justin Brady and Anthony Clarke in the Workshop. So he took them onboard, and improvised and they were all cast in 24/7. It was obvious that his directing style and my working style were very much aligned.
He came back for Romeo Brass, Once Upon A Time In The Midlands, This Is England, although we couldn’t find him a Sean unfortunately. But he found Toby Kebbell for Dead Man’s Shoes. I think Toby’s performance is one of the most amazing performances that Shane has ever produced.
Shane has also just agreed to be a patron of the Workshop alongside Samantha Morton.
Do you positively discriminate against more privileged kids?
I would admit to inverse snobbery. The Workshop was always there primarily to offer a route into drama, TV, film that would not be accessible to those kids normally.
For me, if there is nothing to choose between a kid from a privileged background or one from a less privileged background I’d go for the latter.
Do you advise young actors to go to drama school or get an agent straight away?
It’s a real dilemma.
I know that Samantha Morton sometimes regretted not going to drama schools. In her early days, when she was working with Oxbridge directors who were throwing academic approachess at her she may have felt undertrained – but her strength has always been instinctive and that can be counter to a more over-intellectual approach. .
But then taking yourself out of the market at that important time, between 18-21 isn’t always a good idea either. Because when you come out at 21 you’ve got all the drama school graduates flooding the market. However, there has been a mix of successes from both routes.
It’s not difficult to place an actor with an agent, but it can be difficult to place them with the right agent. I go to the top 20 agents in London. But sometimes, ironically, those in a smaller agency can do better because they are a bigger fish in a small pond, whereas they can sometimes get lost in a bigger agency.
Did you spot Samantha’s talent immediately?
Yes. She had a fierce hunger for acting that sometimes was difficult to contain and harness within the group. I remember bringing her back into the Workshop after she’d been suspended and giving her this wonderful monologue for a London showcase at the Groucho Club and she stormed it!
Any future stars of tomorrow we should be looking out for?
There are so many that have potential. There is a guy called Chris Howitt. We work with Hat Trick Productions and their head of comedy loves him. He has a fantastically fast wit. I’d also say look out for a guy called James Burrows, who is phenomenal. He is in the Jack O’Connell mould. And of course little Oscar Kennedy who has just been signed up with Curtis Brown.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
What I’ve enjoyed recently is being drafted in to coach the actors on Skins. I helped Jane Ripley, the casting director in Skins, on the first series and then they brought me in to work with the actors as they moved from series 3 to series 4, which was quite intensive and I loved it. And then with the newies in series 5 and they were lovely, wide eyed and keen. So I’d like to do more of that. I suppose I should think about retiring as well..but then this isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle.