One click for don't call us

The casting couch goes electronic - 'Spotlight', the actor's bible, is now out on CD-Rom. Robert Butler flicks through its pages
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The Independent Culture
WHEN NOEL COWARD told Mrs Worthing-ton not to put her daughter on the stage, he wasn't able to offer her a look at the latest version of Spotlight Actresses (pounds 100 plus VAT). It's the clincher in the argument.

Traditionally, Spotlight Actresses, the companion volume to Spotlight Actors, is a doorstopper. The four thick volumes contain half-page black- and-white portraits of nearly every professional actress in the country. A few very grand ones - Joan Collins and Joan Plowright - simply have their name in large type; the implication being that this is a business directory and you know what I look like. No one, however, fails to list the name and number of their agent.

You would assume, in four volumes subtitled A-D, E-K, L-P and Q-Z, that the actresses would appear in alphabetical order. Assume again. Spotlight groups actors under several old-fashioned and rather confusing headings: "leading", "character", "young" and "young character". There are a great many leading actresses here whom you have never seen playing leads.

The new version of Spotlight Actresses is quite a departure. First of all, when you pick it up there's no chance of slipping a disc. It is one itself: the first Spotlight to fit in your jacket pocket. All you need, basically, is an AppleMac CD-Rom. Instead of the old sections, a Search Card comes up on the screen offering a range of categories: name, credit, location, height, weight, hair colour, eye colour, other physical, role type, skills, accent and native language.

If you press "search" without filling in any of the specifications the programme gives you the total number of actresses in Britain of any credit, weight or location. Seven thousand eight hundred and twenty-six. Nigel Seale, the publisher, says there is only one criterion for including or excluding someone from Spotlight. "Money." You have to be serious enough about your career to pay the pounds 86.50 fee. Type in "Antonia de Sancha", for instance, and after sorting through every actress on the disc it says: "Sorry, there are no Actors Found." Another box says: "OK." Yes, perfectly.

An actress, naturally, is only up against her peers, so it gives a better picture of the competition to go to the "age" menu - which runs from "over 75" to "16-20" - and click, say, on "20-25". The number that comes up this time is pretty bleak for any 20-25-year-old who's wondering about their next audition. Two thousand six hundred and thirty-seven.

If you click on the "forward" arrow you can watch as one after another of the 2,637 photos appears and then disappears: flirty, dreamy, playful, wide-eyed, poised, secretive, smiley, smouldering, serious. After seeing a few dozen of these you have to cancel the search. It's like going round Battersea Dogs Home. The good news for young actresses is that competi- tion drops off as you scroll up the age range. The number nearly halves after 30. There are only a fifth as many actresses in their late forties as there are in their late twenties. So hang in there.

One way to sort through the 2,637 actresses is to move across the Search Card to the section titled "Skills". Under "Skills 1" click on "piano", under "Skills 2" click on "tap-dancing", under "Skills 3" click on "ballad- singing". Press Search. This time the programme finds a mere 129 actresses who can do all three.

Take a young star like Julia Ormond, who appears above the title with Richard Gere and Sean Connery in the Arthurian First Knight. She's perfect for action-adventure pictures: she is "highly" skilled at fencing, horse- riding, swimming, lacrosse and painting. All that, and she can act too. The poster for First Knight tells us that for Connery and Gere "their greatest battle would be for her love". Her attention, more like.

You could plan a career by looking at "Skills" and working out what no one else can do. Only a fraction of actresses (38) list "belly-dancing" as something in which they are highly skilled. Only 12 actresses in their early thirties list "fire eater" and of those 12 only one can also sing rock. If you need a fire-eating rock singer in her early-thirties, then call for Fran Isherwood. Three-quarters of actresses have a driving licence, but only eight of them have a licence to drive a fork-lift truck. Seventy-seven actresses speak Russian (including Prunella Scales and Frances de la Tour) but only one actress, Evelyn Duah, speaks Ashante as her native language. She is also highly skilled at judo, ice- skating and skiing. Julia Ormond, watch out. Some actresses, such as Elizabeth Hurley, offer no skills.

The Search Card is perfect for casting directors. Malcom Bullivant, for instance, who casts commercials, was rung up and asked to get hold of a dozen French-speaking scuba-divers. He was only given a day's notice so he turned the job down. Two weeks later he bought the Spotlight CDs and realised his mistake. When he was asked to find actresses under 5ft for an Austrian commercial (it was a short women, tall men scenario) he pulled up the list in seconds.

When you explore the section on physical description you discover news for geneticists. There are nearly three times as many "blonde" actresses as there are "blond" actors: 1,630 to 595. There are also nearly twice as many actors with "black" hair as there are actresses with "black" hair: 627 to 348. There is a section called hair length: one in 20 men lists their hair length as "bald". There is a section called "Other Physical": here you learn that eight actresses are wheelchair users, five are deaf, two are blind and one is an amputee.

The Actors CD has 600 more names than its companion disc. Twenty times as many have a licence to drive a fork-lift truck. Three times as many (a terrifying 1,354) play the guitar. More than 5,000 of the 8,000 give their "role type" as "white". You see how the industry works by the fact that more than 5,000 actors give London as their "location" and only eight give Belfast. Type in Roger Moore and the screen reads: "A photograph has not been provided for this artist." The computer calls Roger Moore an artist. What would it call Henry Moore?

Screenwriters can check in advance to see if there is anyone out there who can play a character in their script. Let's say the storyline is about a native-born Belfast man. He's aged 30. He has blond hair and blue eyes. He plays the guitar. He tap-dances. He has a driving licence. It takes no time to find out. Type in the details and a small box says "Actors Found: 3". Go to "Display" and call them up on the PolyPhoto. This lines up the names and faces of the actors alongside each other. The first one up is Stephen J Dean. The second one up is Conrad Nelson. The third one up is Kenneth Branagh. Call up the last one's CV and you see that yes, he's done some movies. He might be worth seeing. The one thing that the Search Card can't tell you is whether or not this Branagh guy can act. !

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