Darling, Olivier had it easy at the National. Gideon Escott on the ordeal of being up for the Nissan ad
DO YOU feel envy and contempt for people who perform on stage and TV? I do, even though I'm an actor myself. Perhaps you've heard stories about the crazy sums paid to thespians in the West End and on ads. I can assure you that they're nearly all true. If, like me, you would like to earn pounds 5,000 for two days work, consider first what you may have to endure.

Auditions for commercials usually last less than five minutes and are, for the uninitiated, fraught with peril. In the waiting room, you fill out forms, assess your rivals, have a Polaroid taken, and pore over the script. At the appointed time, the casting director leads you through to the studio where proceedings nearly always start with a little "chat".

What could be unnerving about standing before a camera and five or six people you've never met before and talking casually about your latest professional successes? Someone in the business told me it's like walking into a room and trying to "break the ice at a party". Another stressed the importance of smiling at all times and, above all being charming. What if you're a charmless party-pooper? I used to dread the "tell us a bit about yourself" part more than the acting.

In my effort not to appear eccentric or melancholy, I would resort to grim jokes and self-mockery. Anything to make them laugh. Consequently, I came over as quite insane. Stunning acting isn't enough; you have to impress the gathering with a display of normality and mental health.

One of my first auditions was for Nissan - the one with the cars falling into the swimming pool causing the dog to get wet. I was required to smile at the mutt's plight, turn to camera and say: "You can with a Nissan".

There seemed to be little scope for variation with these five words, but after several attempts the director wanted more. "You can with a Nissan," I said smoothly, raising my eyebrows to suggest irony. Still unmoved, the director asked me to "play with it". This was my cue to improvise, to let go and find new inspiration. I tried again and again. "You can with a Nissan". I was beginning to lose all control and my five words had become a diabolical mantra. My face now an incoherent mismatch of expressions, I heard myself say: "You can with a Nissan?" They cast someone else.

For one particular European ad, I was to read something thrilling in a newspaper and spontaneously break into a dance; the style of which was left to my discretion. I have been known to dance before (usually in a state of inebriation) and I pride myself on a reasonable level of co-ordination. On this occasion I launched myself off the chair and began to gyrate and spasm dangerously across the floor of the tiny audition room. The cameraman instinctively reached for his camera but the Spanish director became ever more frenzied. Perhaps he registered the deadness in my eyes. "Happy. Happy. You are very happy now!" Actually, I was suicidal. "You smile. It is happy party!" he said, trying to rally my spirits. If we'd been survivors on a life-boat he might have slapped my face at this point. If ad auditions are a form of quick death, those for the theatre involve a more lingering form of agony. My one and only brush with the West End was at the Cambridge Theatre.

They required a song, so I brought my own acoustic guitar as an ally, but the director wouldn't allow it. I climbed on stage and was handed an electric guitar that seemed unusually complex. Maybe it was my nerves. I approached the microphone and launched into the opening chords of "Get Back". The sound was ghastly but even I was appalled by my own voice. "JoJo was a man who thought he was a woman ..." I paused to find the next chord on the alien fretboard, "But he was another maaaaan". This was becoming deeply unpleasant. "JoJo left his home in Toooson Arizona" (beads of sweat had gathered on my forehead), "For some California graaas". Perhaps I should have stopped then and there, but I pressed on. "Get baaaack ... Get baaaaaack ..." Suddenly, there was silence. The guitar had completely cut out and I stood motionless on the stage. "You've turned your volume down, said the director. I stared blankly across the empty auditorium. "Your volume ... on the guitar!" he repeated as I began to fumble with the controls. As welcome as a vet with a humane-killer, the musical director suddenly plucked the guitar from me.

Clearly, they had been unmoved by my song, but it wasn't over yet. I still had my Shakespeare to do. I turned my back to the auditorium, in order to maximise the dramatic impact of my transformation into Edmund from King Lear. "In your own time," said the director. Slowly, and with some menace, I moved round to face him. I narrowed my eyes and gazed outwards towards Edmund's envisaged destiny. Then ... nothing. I had forgotten the lines and all I could see were the exit signs at the back. "Just relax. Try again in your own time," said the patient director. (Why wouldn't he let me go?) "Nature, thou art my goddess ... um, sorry I've lost it." Two minutes later I was out the door. Thespian spirit being what it is, I held out a glimmer of hope that I might be cast; perhaps they'd realise I'd had a bad day and could sparkle in other circumstances. It never happened.

It's not easy to read these situations. Blank indifference or howling laughter, the response of the director and clients is no real indicator of how well the audition is going. You can leave in an ecstasy of new- found friendship and not even be "pencilled in". Yet actors have told me how they were met with silence, indifference and even hostility but were cast nevertheless.

One month ago I did a casting for a deodorant ad in the room where I had danced so disastrously once before. Again I told the camera of my brilliant career, my comedy work and my wholesome side-lines. I made a joke or two then was given 30 seconds to be an orchestra conductor with BO. In the absence of a baton, they handed me a chopstick. There was no response from the clients and director as I grimaced and con- torted on the imaginary podium, and my humorous flirtation with the principle violin was met with blankness. Someone said thank you and I left. Two days later my agent called ... I'd got the job.