An Actor's Alphabet

Julie Hesmondhalgh
Nick Hern Books

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An Actor's Alphabet by Julie Hesmondhalgh Credit: Nick Hern Books

Part memoir, part collection of opinion pieces (sometimes political, sometimes about 'the business') and part advice manual, this book, subtitled "An A to Z of Some Stuff I've Learnt and Some Stuff I'm Still Learning", is a very interesting insight into the mind of this popular actor that reflects her voice and her personality, flaws and all, on every page.

Like Simon Callow's pioneering book Being An Actor, first published in 1984, Hesmondhalgh is not trying to teach the craft of acting but to give advice—some derived from her own painful or embarrassing experiences, which she explains openly—on how to survive while making a living as an actor in a profession that has, throughout history, been precarious and not particularly highly regarded.

But, while Hesmondhalgh has had a very successful stage and TV career, including six years in Coronation Street as Hayley Cropper, this is not delivered as someone at the top of her profession telling the young people how it is done. For this working class girl from Accrington, even those trophies from the British Soap Awards, Royal Television Society and Manchester Theatre Awards haven't totally eradicated that imposter syndrome, and even with a CV like hers, she still has to pay the bills and great parts aren't always handed to her on a plate (she says she has still never got a job from a 'self tape', i.e. an audition video recorded at home).

It is the humility and the gentle self-deprecation—especially of her younger self—that gives this book a warmth and humanity that isn't often found in training manuals and self-help books on any subject. She frankly confesses to her past mistakes and admits that she is still making them, as she is still learning many things about the business and about working with different people—and is keen to do so.

The alphabetical structure goes from "Activism", "Body Issues" and "Class" through "Fame", "jealousy", "Line-learning" and "Rehearsals" to "X-rated", "Young Artists" and "Zoom". The author advises on essential practical work subjects such as tax, dealing with the 'between jobs' quiet times, continuous training and caring responsibilities (she has raised two kids with her scriptwriter husband Ian Kershaw alongside her acting career) as well as more general issues like how to behave on set or in the rehearsal room, when to challenge or say no to what a director or producer is asking you to do and, of course, the importance of joining the union, Equity.

This is a book that will be extremely useful for anyone taking their first steps into this unstable industry and will raise plenty of smiles of recognition from more experienced members of the profession, but it will also give the general reader an interesting insight into the struggles of forging a long-term career in the performing arts, even for someone whose face is familiar from the telly.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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