The Daftest Job I’ve Ever Done

It's like the hand has a life of its own...

It’s as if the hand had a life of its own… And a mortgage…

Well, what’s yours? Mine was hand doubling. And no, not that kind of film, behave yourself. A piano hand double. Although the other kind would probably pay better…

A gig as a “stunt pianist” is quite interesting, really. Some actors put a lot of work into pretending they can play, most don’t and just focus on smouldering over the top of the instrument at the leading lady/chief Nazi/gangster. One or two can actually play just enough to get the gist across if the sound isn’t used and you don’t pay enough attention.

But I’ve seen a lot of actors’ resumes claiming Grade 8 and I often don’t understand what exactly they’ve achieved Grade 8 in… Knitting? Yeah, right, and you can ride a horse too? Tell you what, let’s get the horse to play the piano instead. They’re rarely (as advertised) fluent in Hungarian either… The actors I mean – I can’t speak for the horses.

Generally speaking, though, there’s a fool like me who gets paid to film hand scenes (I’m not Hollywood or anything, but I’ve done a few things). Soap and perfume commercials are the same. You did realise those aren’t Kate Moss’s hands or Claudia Schiffer’s ankles, right? (And I’m sure there’s nothing anatomically wrong with the ladies in question.)

Usually never much more that a few seconds of footage gets spliced in, but it’s enough to give the audience the impression that lantern-jawed Rex or sultry Susanna can toss off a bit of Cole Porter or Rachmaninov, while nonchalantly exchanging quips or experiencing the torment of lost love.


Filming these sessions can be an absolute hoot. You arrive, they’re shooting late (they always are). The hero is 6’4 and built like a brick outhouse, you’re 5’9 and not. They put you in a spare jacket, strap your sleeves up and maybe add a ring, with half a reel of cotton to make it fit. They give you something to listen to or a score to read while you’re waiting (you do a lot of waiting on film sets).

Starring Ann Todd... and from the wrists down, Eileen Joyce.

Starring Ann Todd… and from the wrists down, the exceptional Eileen Joyce (uncredited).

“And Insert 23 Take 42… rolling… play. And cut. Lovely, can we have you up at the top end of the keyboard, please – the light’s better.”

“Fine, if you don’t mind it sounding like a musical box.”

“That’s no problem, we won’t be using the sound. Okay and … Take 47. And cut. Can you play with your hands closer together please?”

“Fine, if you don’t mind them being in different keys – it’ll look odd.”

“Don’t worry sweetie, we’ll cut it in the right way. No-one will know. And cut. Can you just make a grand gesture when I give you the cue, darling? And… Take 57…”

And in all seriousness, I was once booked with the brief of “improvising music in the background to reflect a variety of perfumes being discussed”. Yeah right – I’ve always felt that Ab minor evokes bloody sandalwood…

Silly money really. But take it if you’re offered it – you’ll have some fun.

It’s interesting. Everybody seems to like it to be known that they play piano. The editor of The Guardian wrote a book about how learning how to mangle a perfectly innocent piece of Chopin kept him focused while he was trotting round the Middle East doing not much good whatsoever. The UK shadow chancellor recently applied his cackhanded sub-Grade 3 chops to something from Kinderscenen – for charity, natch. And apparently the outgoing Dr Who would like it to be known that his skills extend beyond flapping his arms around and moist gurning – no, he plays a bit of piano too…

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings, j) Sound & Vision
One comment on “The Daftest Job I’ve Ever Done
  1. Jason says:

    Incidentally, in the scene from The Sting where Newman is demonstrating his card skills to Redford, the cutaways are of John Scarne’s hands – and speeded up.
    Scarne was probably the best card mechanic of all time, and also the author of several books, including a very useful one about rules and how to spot sharps and avoid the common scams.

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