Morality claws

Nowadays, would-be soap stars don't just audition - they submit themselves to positive vetting. Hilary Kingsley just can't get over the outbreak of new blue whiteness
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The Independent Culture
This week's Gillian Taylforth affair - Kath's crash, as we EastEnders followers call it - has caused a bit of a flurry in the world of television.

After Taylforth's sensational failed libel action against the Sun last year (it was about what a policeman did or didn't see the actress and her fiance Geoff Knights doing in a Range Rover in a lay-by) she has become a tabloid target. The car crash on Monday, which led to a positive breath test and subsequent public recriminations from Mr Knights, brings her under new scrutiny.

It has also concentrated the minds of the people who run this and other popular television series. The new thinking is that, contrary to the old rule, not all publicity is good publicity. Actors who tend to get fighting drunk, actresses who have collagenimplants in their lips (if they think no one will notice, why do they have them?), actors who play hotly heterosexual characters on screen but who behave with gay abandon off it, are obvious liabilities. That's why the BBC has just hired Gilly Sutton towork on EastEnders. Her title is Liaison Officer. The cast knows that means "nanny".

That's not all the BBC is doing, though. It is planning to vet new actors before they are cast. And they're not alone -more and more of the people who appear in advertisements must pass security checks too.

Why? Remember the case of Bob Hoskins who, while appearing in a multimedia campaign for BT, was "outed" as a Mercury telephone-user? Rumours persist that an actor who appeared as a clown in countless commercials for MacDonalds was later exposed as a closet vegetarian.

Worse still was the case of the actress Deborah Moore, daughter of Roger, who stars in the advertisements for Scottish Widows insurance. Starred, rather. Then Miss Moore and her husband divorced. Her contract was not renewed. She felt there was a link. Divorce is something Scottish Widows just don't do.

Advertising companies traditionally relied on actors to come clean in time. Back in the Sixties, Katie Boyle found that Camay, which she was paid to extol, brought her out in spots. She told the manufacturers before someone spotted her buying Lux at the chemists. Luckily they were willing and able to change the formula. The rashes cleared up and she kept her contract. But not all problems are so easy to defuse.

Children are notoriously risky. The freckle-faced imp scoffing the newest breakfast cereal may turn out to be the pick-pocket champion of Greater London, scourge of the shopping malls. They may go off the rails after making the ads. When Hovis decided tore-run a venerable old campaign, featuring the angelic Ray Guinnane pushing his bike up a sepia hill, they enlisted the help of the tabloids in tracking the actor down so they could pay him his royalties. They found him in court, asking for a 10-year history of law-breaking to be taken into account. (Even that, of course, might be preferable to discovering your cherubic Ribena boy had grown up to be Michael Portillo.)

Babies are often no better. Chosen for their rosy cheeks as the new-born stars of soap, their parents may have problems that embarrassingly upstage the shows. If Ken Barlow thinks he has a raw deal now that his screen partner Denise has refused to name him on the birth certificate, he should read what one Sunday paper recently revealed of the child's real mother's emotional tangles. Any public relations person would have advised the producers to look for safe, mortgaged, middle-class mothers first. Better a blotchy baby than another scandal.

When producers tiresomely insist on picking actors for their talent, it falls to the publicity people to vet the new arrivals after they've signed up. And the grilling methods now being used on new recruits would impress the folks at MI5. First there's ascanning of information on the old boy / girl network. Who is likely to report sick too often after a hard day's night in the clubs... which star may turn up on the set with a toyboy / girl who may later sign with Max Clifford... which actor has been known to turn up with illegal substances in his / her bloodstream / pocket. Gossip about such things tends to circulate faster in the world of showbiz than in a fan-assisted oven.

When all those are noted, skeletons are quietly prized out of artists' cupboards, evaluated and logged. This information may influence future contracts. At the least, no interview is agreed with a journalist likely to ask questions about sensitive, skeleton-related subjects.

If the skeleton is rumbled - as Leslie Grantham's conviction and prison sentence for murder was during the time he appeared as Dirty Den in EastEnders - press officers try to operate a damage limitation exercise. Grantham had come clean about his past toproducer Julia Smith and the then BBC boss Michael Grade before his contract was sealed, so the tabloids' horror headlines surprised only the fans.

The wording of contracts may help. Actors who appear in Coronation Street are forbidden by theirs to talk to journalists without obtaining permission from the show's producers. They are not supposed to undergo cosmetic surgery, have their teeth capped oreven change their hairstyles without the official OK.

At the more gentlemanly BBC no such rules have applied - until now. The artists' agents have dealt with interview requests, often fixing handsome fees. Newspapers tend to want value for money - which may explain why so many BBC stars "tell all". But the powers-that-be at Television Centre are increasingly concerned that knowing the truth, let alone the whole truth, may be a serious turn-off for viewers. That's why they're trying to tighten control.

It's obvious, though, that even if the only actors ever hired are squeaky clean, they may fall into bad habits later, with the strain of working on a long-running show, and the money to indulge their newly sharpened tastes. Some at the BBC would like to introduce a "morality clause". There is a precedent:Hollywood studios used the device to try to keep their stars on the straight and narrow. But it has to be said that it didn't always work. When, early in his career, Robert Mitchum was busted for marijuana, he told the police his occupation was "former actor". He needn't have worried - he was making money for his employers: the clause was not invoked.

But if something of the kind is to be introduced for actors in drama series and commercials, where will that leave weather forecasters, football commentators, National Lottery ball number callers, news readers or daytime chat show astrologers? And what, nowadays, would we consider inappropriate behaviour? Reading a Jackie Collins novel or attending a Cannon and Ball panto are likely to be far more damaging to your imagethan a mere criminal conviction.

In any case, the last thing that most actors want is to have the image of their calling cleaned up.Sometimes, dammit, the performance is just as good when the artist has just walked out on his children and heavily pregnant wife or is three sheets to the wind at breakfast time.

When Mike Todd was making Around the World in 80 Days, he cast David Niven as Phileas Fogg but hadn't found the right actor for the detective Mr Fix. Niven suggested his old mate Robert Newton, then far gone in drink. "He takes the odd glass," Niven understated, "but I'll see he's fit for work each day. Just don't mention his habit. He's a bit sensitive about it."

Todd called the old actor in and said: "Mr Newton, I understand you're a lush." But he signed him, and Newton did the job. And it was a great movie.