Anyone who knows film and follows the British genre with interest will know the work of Geoff Bell.
In his years in the business he has been a bad guy, a good guy, a screw, a con and even the captain of England football team. He has just been shooting Guy Ritchie’s Knights of the Round Table, where he gets attacked by a 50-foot anaconda, and been ironed out by a Pankhurst in the upcoming Suffragette [working alongside Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter]. Both films are due out next year. Not bad for a boy born in Peckham and raised in Lambeth Walk.
I caught up with him in a pub in the hub of the country’s film industry, Soho, where Geoff is on first name terms with barmen and those who pose outside Bar Italia nursing a coffee. He had just been for an audition. “They want me to play a f—king German!” exclaims the man who is as London as it gets.
Geoff always wanted to be an actor and recalls doing impressions for the family at parties as a kid. “Me granddad was a singer in a little country and western band and, you know what it was like in those olden days, everyone used to get up in the living room and do a little turn at Christmas.” From those inauspicious beginnings Geoff stepped up to entering caravan site talent competitions at the age of ten and experiencing the sound of an appreciative audience.
But then life got in the way and the young Bell grew up to have a family and a window cleaning business until at age 28 he split up with his wife. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know I didn’t want to carry on shining, so looked for something that would change me”, he recalls. It was then that Geoff’s thoughts returned to the stage. He had not been able to pursue that dream with a young baby and house to pay for but things were different now. He enrolled in the acting class at Morley College and passed the audition with a scene from John Godber’s Bouncers. “I did it in a Scouse accent, as that’s what it’s written in, but the director, Brian Croucher, told me to always use my own accent”, he says. That there was Geoff Bell’s first acting lesson. “I learnt then to always do it my way,” he says before taking a good draw on his lager.
From cleaning windows one day to finding a passion for Pinter and Chekhov and Shakespeare the next was this potential actor’s first year at college. After graduating Mr Bell cut his teeth on the usual TV stuff (The Bill, Eastenders… “It was a conveyer belt; they wheeled you in and wheeled you out”) and fringe theatre. The Kennington Boy’s big break came with the film AKA where he worked for no money but with some very good actors. “I played an abusive father and smashed it,” he says with all the modesty of the confident man he is. The good feedback from that film got him an audition for Mike Bassett: England Manager. He was to play England’s captain. “I based it on Stuart Pierce and Terry Butcher: fattest captain ever!” he laughs as he relives the story. But the skills he picked up from playing football round the flats took him to Brazil and Wembley in this film. “And got paid a nice few quid,” says the man who recognises the value of a pound note.
Another football film followed, Mean Machine, and Geoff brought a bit more of himself and his style to the screen. “People liked the stillness and internal acting I put out there,” he tells me. “It’s what I learnt from Brian Croucher at Morley and from studying Pinter.”
I was interested to know which actor Geoff admires most and he surprised me when he said Tom Bell, who he first saw in that great series Out from 1978. He eventually got to work with him on the last film before he died. Looking wistful he remembers “he said some lovely words to me.” He then recounted how Bell, one of Britain’s great actors, was ostracised for most of his career for daring to bad-mouth the Establishment. He has several anecdotes from the acting world and revels in one about Rupert Everett and an abscess.
But Geoff Bell now wants to give back to the industry that has given him a good living, and to the community that he grew up in, by running an acting class at the college where he first learnt his skills. He knows that Government cuts have severely cut back on the working class going to university and we have already moved into a generation of actors coming from privileged backgrounds. Hence there is no foreseeable Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine, Albert Finney, Tom Bell or Geoff Bell coming through.
This local boy wants to put on an acting class within the financial reach of people like him, and at the end of the course at least one in the class is guaranteed to get a London agent to represent them. Geoff enthused about the last course he ran where the agent came to see the end of programme performance and chose two of the group, who are both now working in the industry. “One of the two had already done a drama course and become disillusioned with it,” begins Bell, “then came on my course and ended up getting representation with the agent.”
He talks of teaching the “simple but powerful process that I do” at Morley as they are keen to be able to help him. He says it will be a small group of just eight students, with improvised auditions – “Ken Loach style” – working one eight-hour day a week for eight Mondays.
Much to his disappointment there has to be a charge of £3,200 to cover the £22,000 expenses but the costs go towards cameras, editing and guest tutors that Geoff has brought in from his numerous friends and contacts in the game, who will come in to help out and participate. “I’ve tried to get a council grant and making the course free, but they ain’t having it,” he says dejectedly.
He reveals he will introduce the group to short two-handers that will be performed and filmed, and he claims “it will be like nothing done before”. The course covers reading and understanding text, and how to give a good audition. “Some people can’t even hit a mark and deliver their name!” he barks in amazement. “Look, if it comes off it will be brilliant,” claims the actor. But this is hopefully just a start as he intends to expand and evolve until his class is franchised across the country.
The Geoff Bell Screen Acting Course is at Morley College, 61 Westminster Bridge Road, SE1 7HT, from September 21-November 9 from 10:30am-5:30pm.
Auditions are at the end of August. Sign up online at: