It's another hot day at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club in Wimbledon, London SW19, and I'm sitting in the stands overlooking the immaculately manicured turf of No 2 Court, watching for the 10th, maybe the 12th time, as a ball boy holds his hand high above his head and then bounces the ball gently towards a beautiful, young, blonde figure. She's dressed in fetching tennis whites, looking the very image of a tennis starlet - Anna Kournikova or Maria Sharapova, perhaps - and awaits the ball nervously. For the umpteenth time in succession, she makes an ill-timed grab for it. The ball drops to the floor. The crowd of extras - or background artistes, as the more officious like to be known - groan as one. Kirsten Dunst looks over and casually flicks us the bird.
"Cut!" yells the director, "and everyone back to their places." From nowhere, a number of terrifyingly fashionable and handsome people rush on to the court. A couple of them gather around the girl and wipe away the sheen of sweat on her brow before spraying her with some water to create exactly the same look. A man with aviator shades on (actually, almost all the crew working on the film wear them) pulls at Dunst's shirtsleeve and tweaks her skirt, to no discernible end, until satisfied that he has achieved the right look. He then wanders off. A group of runners, the bottom of a film crew's long chain of command, stand in front of the extras. "Now, all try and stay in the same position and no talking," they say. We start again. The cameras roll, up goes the ball boy's arm, down plops the yellow ball, and Dunst turns and this time takes it adroitly. There is a ripple of ironic applause. "Cut!" shouts the director. "Can we have silence when we're filming, please?" he asks patiently. Cue grumbles from the extras and disappointed shaking of heads by the fashionable people in aviators. Oh, the glamour of the film set.
For the last seven weeks, I have been one of about 150 people who congregate outside the Centre Court canteen at 7am every morning to play an extra in Working Title's latest British romcom, Wimbledon. For the princely sum of £60 a day, we have turned up to clap, gasp and applaud on cue while pretending to be awe-inspired spectators at this most English of sporting events. But most of the time we sit around and sunbathe and get paid for it. Judging by the ensemble cast around me, it seems that most extras are recent graduates and school-leavers who aren't in a terrible rush to get stuck in the rat race, but still need the money to get them through the summer. My lucky ticket has come courtesy of a mate who happens to be a runner on the set.
This being a Working Title production, I assume the film will be made up of those British romcom staples: the dusting off of a classic love song, a few fairy-tale shots of London, a cast of lovably eccentric English characters, a ballsy American chick and, after some difficulties and a few misunderstandings, a very happy ending.
I remain flushed with enthusiasm for my role, which still mostly entails sitting in the crowd and clapping when instructed. Occasionally somebody shouts impromptu support for our hero ("Come on, Pete" is a particular favourite) and waves one of the small Union flags that we have been issued with. As a job it beats the hell out of working. If the weather is fine we sit on one of the outside courts, toying with the crossword while Paul Bettany throws himself around on court energetically in an imaginary rally. The sequences begin with Bettany hitting his serve as hard as he can and the ball flying off into the next court, before a carefully choreographed rally takes place.
Of course, no balls are present. Naturally, they will be added by computer generation later, we are reliably informed by the producer with a knowing smile. Trying to watch a virtual rally isn't as easy as you might think. We have to turn our heads in unison at the precise moment the actors pretend to hit the ball. Initially it feels a bit funny, but any sense of absurdity wears off after a while - usually at about the 10th take, I've found. Still, it never takes too long to get a shot and someone has a radio that we can listen to between takes.
In between the rally scenes, the stocky figure of the one-time Wimbledon men's singles champion Pat Cash can be seen on court in his capacity as technical advisor. He takes Bettany to one side and demonstrates with a series of decisive hand chops a more credible way to wield the racket. All things considered, I think Bettany is a muscular presence and has the lithe athleticism of a natural tennis player.
I spot Jimmy Hill walking past to play on the next court. He waves at us kindly when the extras sing to him about his chin. I watch his game of doubles closely and am impressed with a series of crafty volleys that Jimmy executes.
A ripple of excitement is running through the throngs of extras lounging under the cover of the canteen roof. The rain is streaming down, so it is announced that we're going to do some shots inside and - the cause of the ripple - there's going to be a shower scene. My runner friend tells me that if you go naked in the showers you get paid another £60 on top of your daily rate and that he can get me and one friend into the scene. I figure that I've seen him naked before and vice versa so we're one up on everyone else.
We are whisked away to the inner sanctum of Wimbledon's locker room, where we meet the others who have volunteered to appear in the scene. We take our clothes off, pull on a towel and timidly enter the showers. My friend and I, both tall and skinny, quickly work out that we've miscalculated badly. Everyone else in the scene has a far better physique; some of them even have muscles.
Just as the cameras start rolling, I notice two of the guys fall to the ground and knock out 20 press-ups. We try to conceal our sniggers. It's like being in a gym: there's the familiar sense of men posturing in that hugely macho fashion known only to changing rooms. Everyone's checking each other out, but trying to make sure they're not seen doing so. One guy rummages enthusiastically under his towel.
The director enters: "OK, chaps, if you could get in the shower now," he says. I throw off my towel and jump in. Thankfully I'm next to my friend so I don't feel such a weed - by much. Bettany strolls through the showers a few times, chatting with his coach or somebody. We shower away - it's a nice shower - and thankfully the scene is over pretty quickly. Getting changed, I make a mental note to lift more weights, starting with very small ones. No point in rushing these things.
A feeling of torpor has set in among the extras. The weather is oppressively hot, and it appears that filming has fallen slightly behind schedule. We're crammed into Centre Court for long periods with shooting pausing only for lunch, which we're made to eat in the stands. In the afternoon, after our customary lunch (the one that at the beginning of the shoot appeared to be a high point in culinary excellence - pork pies, salad and yoghurt - but that quickly became good only for throwing at your friends), one young girl at the back of the stands starts falling asleep. She is in the enviable position of being installed between the blow-up dolls that populate much of the stadium. The dolls are soft and make a perfect pillow to snooze on. Also, they are dressed in wigs, fake moustaches and glorious sunglasses, the likes of which haven't been seen since Magnum, PI. They provide for hours of dressing up. The girl is dozing away when one of the runners catches sight of her. It does not look good.
"Can you try and stay awake this afternoon, please?" asks one of the runners in his most polite voice. "I know it's boring, but we've a lot to get through."
"Oh, yes, OK. I'm sorry," she says.
Five minutes later she's fast asleep, and the runner goes over again. "I'm sorry, but this can't keep happening," he says. "Plenty of other people will stay awake during this. At the end of the day can you go and see the extras organiser. We won't be needing you any more."
"Whatever," says the sleeping offender. She's just out of school and has a studied air of boredom. At the end of the day she goes to see the organisers and I happen to be walking past. She's being reprimanded for being unprofessional. The girl pulls a silly face and says in a sing-song baby voice: "Well I don't think you're being very professional." Everyone cringes slightly. The girl is told not to come back. I make a mental note to try and stay awake.
Decide that it's going to be my last day. By now, I'm so bored it hurts. The thought of eating another pork-pie lunch makes me feel unwell. I am even tired of sitting in the Royal Box pretending to be some obscure scion of the Danish throne. You can't even read because the runners are always telling you to look at the camera. I decide that being an extra is really not for me.
As I walk to the gate, casting my gaze over the tennis club's hallowed precincts for the last time, Bettany sweeps past, chatting on his mobile. His gorgeous, heavily pregnant wife Jennifer Connelly walks alongside him. I feel a little star-struck. Being an extra has had its moments. As for the film, I'm less sure. It's hard to imagine the outcome when you've seen the men operating the machinery. But, if for nothing else, I'm looking forward to seeing that tall skinny guy - wearing a wig and a Union T-shirt - celebrating the frankly unbelievable possibility that Britain has produced a Wimbledon champion. As a great man once said, it could only happen in the movies.
'Wimbledon' is released on 17 SeptemberReuse content