The word going round the University in May 1974 was that Monty Python (MP), then at the peak of their fame, were wanting to shoot some of the scenes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the Stirling area. They had apparently had a dispute with their normal supplier of extras, or the extras themselves, who were demanding to be paid £5 per day. This was considered exorbitant and MP told them to get lost, believing they'd be able to get students from the very young Stirling University for much less than that. And they did. Notices appeared asking for volunteers to take part in the film for £2 a day with free food and transport. In reality we’d probably have done it for nothing as the prestige (or notoriety) of being involved with such giants of contemporary humour and zanyness would have been enough.
They needed 175 extras. Certainly a legion of students turned up at the meeting place at 8am one Saturday morning. Ideal weather for a battle, sunny and dry. I can’t be sure whether we gathered on campus to be clothed and made up, or were taken to some tent city, but I think it was on the campus. I just remember much of the day being endless queuing and waiting. Imagine how long it takes to select clothes and weapons for 175 non-professionals just wanting a laugh and good day out! So we filed past observers who assessed us for chainmail or Crusader tunics, swords or halberds, pikes or shields. Our clothes were discarded in piles as we changed into battle gear. (I wore chainmail, actually chunky knitwear sprayed with metallic paint). Then to Doune Castle for hours of hanging around, being moved here and there, amid a general confusion and scarcely a sign of a camera at work. Preparation 99%, filming 1% was my impression. Also, how extraordinarily tall John Cleese was. I recall the free food as being little more than a sandwich and cup of tea / coffee which arrived so late it went in a gulp.
Finally to the highlight, the battle scene on Sheriffmuir. Actually it was only half a battle. We were one side of the conflict. We never fought anyone, we never saw an enemy, we just had to charge down as we attacked an imaginary enemy. The ground was rough, all tussocks. We slipped, we tripped, we laughed. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This was a serious battle, this was life and death. Again and again we had to climb that damn hillock, regroup, be sworn to seriousness and then the order to charge was given. It seemed impossible to get a serious take, there was always one or two who ruined it, and I must have done so several times. It was hard not to when the person in front suddenly cartwheeled and landed face first in a bog. The production team began to show their frustration and things became a bit fraught. Then, disaster. On what must have been the 20th shoot, when we'd been told to shear apart on either side of the camera, someone with a pike tripped. Now the swords were lightweight fakes but these pikes did have metal heads and this particular one smashed the camera’s filter; one hundred quid’s worth, we were told and quite a serious amount of money in those days (well, obviously - a day’s bill for fifty un-carded extras).
Eventually MP were satisfied and I remember they then wanted a few close-ups of legs. The camera zoomed in on six pairs of legs walking past. We were selected at random, whoever was nearest at the time. I took careful note so that I could tell everyone which were my legs on the big screen. They were the third pair crossing from the left.
When the film came out, I couldn’t wait to see it. I was so disappointed. I imagined the battle scene would last 30 minutes. I think it was 30 seconds. Nowhere could I see myself - and let’s be frank, that was my sole criterion for judging the film’s success. Not a glimpse at Doune Castle and no time to recognize anyone in the twenty-four frames (one-second) ‘army before the charge’ scene. And my legs? Deleted scene, of course. So over the decades I’ve had to build my prestige on the fact that I have appeared on celluloid somewhere in a semi-blockbuster (was it?), and I have entered the twenty-five yard personal space of the Monty Python team.
It was a brilliant day but I don’t imagine any one of us ever considered a career as a professional extra after that (£5 a day and bigger sandwiches - maybe).